Feature Article - June 2007
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Building Active, Involved Communities

The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) completed a survey that found that the majority (89 percent) of city managers believe that it is the responsibility of parks and recreation departments to lead the way in creating communities that promote active lifestyles. That same study also showed that nearly half of city managers felt that the most important action to take in order to build these communities is to build an interconnected system of parks and trails.

The Trust for Public Land (TPL) calls further attention to the need to create more opportunities for physical activity in communities that are traditionally underserved, including low-income areas, higher-poverty areas, and communities with a higher proportion of racial and ethnic minorities. Research has shown that these citizens are at a higher risk of being sedentary and overweight. "As many as two-thirds of the residents of America's largest cities do not have access to a nearby park, playground or open space," the TPL reports in its report, "The Benefits of Parks: Why America Needs More City Parks and Open Space."

One California-based respondent cited community fitness as an issue of top concern in his area. "We are in a low-income community, and we are a generally out-of-shape community. There are too many fast-food and bad food vendors and not enough opportunities for community fitness."

According to the Task Force on Community Preventive Services, a 15-member, nonfederal, independent panel of experts working in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control, one of six recommended interventions to help get more people active is the "creation of or enhanced access to places for physical activity combined with informational outreach activities."

Parks and recreation departments are well-positioned to provide for such programs. Many park facilities already include fitness centers and multipurpose rooms that can be adapted for this use. For departments that do not have gyms, weight rooms or fitness spaces, there's still plenty to do. In addition to forming partnerships with other organizations in the community, you can get people more active simply by getting them outside.

In his testimony before Congress, Louv touted several city, state and regional campaigns, including programs in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area, St. Louis, Florida, Colorado, Kentucky and Texas, as well as Canada. "A host of related initiatives—among them the simple-living, walkable-cities, nature-education and land-trust movements—have begun to find common cause, and collective strength, through this issue," he said.

A simple walking program can get local citizens engaged in one of the most popular—and easiest—forms of exercise around. One example is set forth by the NRPA, which recently partnered with the AARP to introduce a 10-week pilot walking program in cities across the nation.

"Walking can take place in any of the numerous venues provided by public park and recreation agencies," noted John Thorner, NRPA's executive director, in a press release announcing the program. "We are proud to be working with AARP on this 10-week walking program to promote health and livability throughout the lifespan of all Americans."

Ten locations are hosting the pilot program, which aims to help participants find safe places to walk, in addition to providing tools and support to help them keep going.

For parks departments that want to reach their residents through traditional fitness options in fitness centers and community centers, there are several things to keep in mind. Atilano suggested that multipurpose is the way to go.