Feature Article - June 2007
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Building Active, Involved Communities

Parks, trails and greenways—usually protected areas along rivers and waterways, or sometimes abandoned railroad tracks—are an essential component of the mission most parks and recreation departments serve. To help people realize the full benefits of these amenities, Active Living by Design, a program of The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that establishes and evaluates innovative approaches to increase physical activity through community design, public policy and communication strategies, recommends activities communities can pursue, including physical projects. These might include projects to link different parks, trails and greenways up with local destinations to encourage people to walk instead of getting in their car. The organization also encourages communities to design parks, trails and greenways with multiple users in mind, and solicit community feedback to determine citizens' interests and needs. In addition, communities should ensure that their parks, trails and greenways are well-maintained and improved when necessary. Otherwise, safety will suffer, and people will stop taking part.

Dr. John Sutterby, an assistant professor at the University of Texas, Brownsville, who focuses on early childhood development and play theory and development, said that he's seen more parks adapting to include more interaction between children and adults, in addition to the traditional playgrounds and picnicking amenities we've all come to expect.

"We've been seeing more long, linear park designs that are more for adult-child interaction, where they can take long walks or long bike rides," said Sutterby, who is an advisory board member for IPEMA's Voice of Play Initiative. "We've also seen a lot of housing hooking up with parks. We just had a long one put in as part of an abandoned railroad track."

For the playgrounds that are planned, there is a trend away from the more traditional equipment, according to IPEMA advisory board member Dr. Frances Wallach, president of Total Recreation Management Services Inc. and an expert in park and playground safety, planning, design and evaluation. "There's more creativity in terms of playground design, and really a trend toward having equipment out there that will be both challenging and creative for the children," she said.

Hendy agreed. "I think that a lot of people are beginning to want something a little different," she said. "They're looking at more unique, creative products—kind of going outside the box a little bit. Some traditional play equipment is still important, but they're looking at providing other opportunities for play as well. We're seeing that with the boulders and the climbing walls and bringing more natural elements in."

This coincides with an increase in "play value," which IPEMA advisory board member Monty Christiansen said he's seen as a growing trend. A co-founder, with Wallach, of the National Playground Safety Institute (NSPI), Christiansen is also the executive director of the International Playground Safety Institute (ISPI).

"I've seen an increase in what we would call 'play value'—these things that spontaneously encourage children to challenge themselves and reach out beyond the traditional rides and climbing equipment," he explained.

Play spaces for adults are gaining in importance as well, according to several of the IPEMA Voice of Play Advisory Board members. "Something I've seen more abroad than here is the development of adult playgrounds," Christiansen said. "I saw a lot of these in Hong Kong. They provide opportunities for adult-scaled equipment used primarily for fitness and development. They're used a lot in Hong Kong by the senior citizens. It's a bit different from the fitness trails we've seen over the years here in the United States."

Hendy said that these kinds of equipment are starting to appear stateside as well. "We're starting to see that equipment out in California in areas where the climate is such that people can be outside year-round," she said.

Yet another way to ensure there are opportunities for all to get involved in our local park facilities.