Planning and Community Health Research Center

Parks and Recreation

Parks, recreation facilities, and open spaces provide a multitude of benefits to both people and the natural environment.

Parks include small neighborhood and pocket parks, trails, greenways, water shorelines, large planned urban and regional parks, and forested areas within and surrounding cities. Recreation facilites take in playgrounds, ball fields, tennis courts, and gymnasiums. Open spaces can be as diverse as agricultural land, forests, gardens, arboretums, and institutional grounds.

They provide people with formal and informal gathering places to be physically active, socialize, relax, build community, and connect with the natural world. They make urban areas more inviting for living, working and relaxing. And, they provide environmental benefits, such as stormwater management, erosion control, buffering between built and natural environments, and wildlife habitat.

Planners play an important role in ensuring that these spaces are safe and secure; well preserved, designed, constructed, or maintained; socially and culturally relevant; appropriately and equitably located in all neighborhoods; and physically accessible.

Access to Parks and Recreation

With ongoing population growth, the amount of parkland per resident continues to shrink. Similarly, a lack of funding and rising land values render expanding and maintaining parks and open spaces a difficult task.

Especially in disadvantaged low-income and minority neighborhoods with limited resources with higher poverty rates, access to parks, open space and recreational facilities is undermined by the lack of safe and nearby parks and playgrounds. Inability to access parks and recreational facilities is associated with fewer opportunities for physical activity, thus increasing risk for chronic diseases, poor health conditions, and obesity within those communities.

Apart from addressing the health needs of the community, parks and recreational facilities need to respond to the diverse social and cultural needs of the communities in which they are located. With programs and facilities that target all age groups and respect the cultural sensitivity of the community, parks can help engage community members in various physical activities that help promote their health and foster their sense of belonging and ownership.

Planners play a major role in eliminating the barriers to accessing parks and recreational facilities through harnessing the community efforts and promoting public, private, and nonprofit partnerships to create safe, well-designed parks, open spaces, and recreation areas.

APA's Commitment

APA is fully committed to helping practicing planners plan and develop safe, well-designed parks, open spaces, and recreation areas that are socially and culturally relevant, appropriately and equitably located in all neighborhoods, and physically accessible.

In 2001, with funding from the Wallace Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, APA initiated a project called the City Parks Forum. This forum convened mayors, park advisors, and community leaders from 24 communities across the country at six symposia to identify and address park related problems in each community and provide information on how healthy parks are fundamental to many aspects of community prosperity.

The community-specific park needs and issues were published as a series of Case Studies. APA also produced a series of 11 Briefing Papers to illustrate how parks improve economic health and vitality, reduce crime, improve public physical and mental health, create a strong sense of community, support overall quality of life, and more. These briefing papers support mayors, their parks advisors, private sector parks advocates, planners, and others in promoting parks and ensuring an urban parks legacy across the country.

APA also published three monographs on urban parks as part of the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) Report series. Parks, Recreation, and Open Space: A Twenty-First Century Agenda (PAS Report 497/498), Parks and Economic Development (PAS Report 502), and From Recreation to Recreation: New Directions in Parks and Open Space Planning (PAS Report 551) highlight the economic, health, environmental, and social benefits of parks and recreational facilities.

APA has published several reports on the linkages between planning and public health in creating healthy places. Integrating Planning and Public Health (PAS Report 539/540), published in 2006, examines collaborations between planners and public health professionals committed to building healthy communities. It outlines five strategic points of intervention at which planners and public health professionals can coordinate their efforts: visioning and goal setting, planning, implementation, site design and development, and public facility siting and capital spending. Frequent statistics and studies presented in the report highlight the role parks and open spaces play in achieving mental and physical health, reducing obesity and inactivity, and improving air and water quality. Case studies in the report illustrate the specific tools — including health impact assessments — used in such collaborations.

Planning Active Communities (PAS Report 543/544), published in 2006, and "Incorporating Health into Comprehensive Planning" in the PAS Memo look at how planning processes, development regulations, and community participation can be used to ensure that development patterns facilitate everyday physical activity. Among the interventions to promote physical activity, parks, trails, paths, and open spaces are considered important "green infrastructure" elements that need to be promoted and maintained.

In 2009, APA published Planning the Urban Forest (PAS Report 555) in collaboration with the International Society of Arboriculture, American Forests, and the U.S. Forest Service. The report contains various case studies and tools for adopting a "green infrastructure" approach. It highlights the environmental, economic, and social benefits of urban forests and offers tools for creating effective urban forestry programs.