In honor of July being Parks and Recreation month, I decided to focus on how we, as Safe Routes to School advocates, can ensure that all children have the ability to be active outside all year round. Just like walking and bicycling to school, access to parks and recreation can directly impact the overall quality of life for children. When a child has the ability to safely, easily and quickly access a park, they are more likely to take advantage of the physical activity opportunities that the outdoors provide.
While 70 percent of Americans live within walking distance to a park, the condition of parks and the routes that children take to those parks varies. In some communities, traffic safety may be the biggest barrier that keeps children away from parks, while in other areas there could be crime concerns. Some people do not live close enough to walk to parks or the parks that are nearby are in disrepair and have unsafe equipment. By working with your parks department, you can use your Safe Routes to Schhool knowledge to address these concerns and increase park usage.
Similar to school siting, park placement can have a huge impact on how easy or difficult it is for children to walk and bike to their local park. While the best way to ensure parks are located throughout your community is to work with your planning and parks departments to identify properties that could be used for parks, this can be a long and costly process. Shared use policies with local schools, religious groups and community organizations (such as the Y of the USA and the Boys and Girls Club) can be easy and inexpensive ways to allow children to use playgrounds, ball fields, or courts that might close or have restricted use during non-school hours. Another quick way for communities to increase access to parks is to turn abandoned properties into temporary mini-parks.
While working to increase the number of parks in your community, you should also assess the transportation issues that might make travel to and from existing parks unsafe. Many communities have created policies called Safe Routes to Parks to improve traffic safety near parks. To implement this type of policy, you should engage your parks department and transportation planners. This can include lowering speed limits on roads surrounding parks to 25-30 MPH, requiring striping and signals at all crosswalks, adding on-street parking to provide a buffer from traffic, installing proper lighting and placing sidewalks around and leading to the park.
An important issue to keep in mind is that where a child lives has a direct impact on how likely they are to have safe access to a park. Areas that lack local parks (sometimes called “play deserts”) often are lower income communities of color. Because children from these neighborhoods tend to suffer from the highest obesity rates, it is imperative that we offer them better access to recreation opportunities.
As you enjoy your summer and parks and recreation month, I hope you will consider reaching out to your local parks department. As partners, you can discover new ways to improve your community by giving all children the opportunity to do what comes most naturally to them—being active.