July is National Parks and Recreation Month. In spite of spending most of my unobligated time in a park, I somehow went most of my life not knowing that. Now that I know, I am celebrating this important recognition each minute of July’s long, hot 31 days.
The National Recreation and Parks Association shares that National Parks and Recreation Month was established almost 40 years ago in 1985 to “promote building strong, vibrant and resilient communities through the power of parks and recreation.” This year, the theme for the month-long celebration is “We Rise Up for Parks and Recreation.”
The NRPA’s 2021 Engagement with Parks Report shows us the many ways that parks and recreation impact our lives. Here are a few fast facts:
- Two-hundred and sixty million people in the United States visited a local park or recreation facility at least once during the past year.
- More than 7 in 10 U.S. residents have at least one local park, playground, open space or recreation center within walking distance of their home.
- Nearly 3 in 5 adults say that access to these amenities is very or extremely essential to their mental and physical health.
- About 4 in 5 adults seek high-quality parks and recreation when choosing a place to live. Eighty-seven percent of people agree that parks and recreation is an important service provided by their local government.
- Nearly 9 in 10 people agree that it is important to fund local park and recreation agencies to ensure every member of the community has equitable access to amenities, infrastructure and programming.
You don’t have to be good at math to see that creating and maintaining connections to parks and recreation adds up. Despite the fact that 9 in 10 people agree that it is important to fund local park and recreation agencies and nearly 9 in 10 people believe that parks and recreation is an important service provided by local governments, we don’t always see actions and decisions matching up with these facts and figures.
PARKS NEED MORE SUPPORT
When speaking with parks professionals across the region, regardless where they’re from — whether they be urban, suburban or rural communities that are large, mid-sized or small — they share a single common message: Parks need more support.
Financial support, certainly. Maintaining parks to be welcoming, inviting, and safe places for residents of many ages and abilities is not something that happens by accident or for free. But, people — staff, volunteers, partners — are also a precious, limited resource.
Parks were thrust into the spotlight during the pandemic as refuges from the onslaught of uncertainty, fear and loss that surrounded us. Fairly early on in the seemingly everlong timeline of the pandemic, the outdoors were highlighted as places where people could see each other off-screen and socialize — at a distance, of course — and be relatively safe.
Locally, several partners came together to promote the Share Your Smile, Not Your Space! Campaign to encourage safe socializing outdoors. Other parks and partners shared similar messages on signs and billboards around the region. The messaging and encouragement for people to opt outside seemed to have worked. I’ve seen more people using parks — walking; hiking; biking; fishing; boating; birding; all of the “-ings” — than I ever have. This trend has remained in place even now, almost three years later.
AMID THE PANDEMIC, A ‘GIFT’
Though the pandemic took so much away from families and communities that cannot ever be replaced, there have been some unexpected “gifts,” specifically of the financial nature. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 designates funding, known as State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, specifically for our local communities. Just here in the Mahoning and Trumbull county region, communities have been awarded almost $200 million to be used to accomplish the following four priorities, as summarized here by the National League of Cities:
- To respond to the COVID-19 public health emergency or its negative economic impacts;
- To respond to workers performing essential work during the COVID-19 public health emergency;
- For government services, to the extent of the reduction in revenue due to the COVID–19 public health emergency impacted governments’ ability to provide such services;
- And to make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.
These are uncharacteristically broad categories and priorities — another unexpected “gift” to many, but like everything else associated with the pandemic, not free from challenges or uncertainties.
PEOPLE WANT LOCAL PARKS
To identify how best to invest this once-in-a-lifetime windfall, some local community leaders decided to invite residents to share their perspectives and priorities. In the summer and fall of 2021, the cities of Youngstown and Warren held several listening sessions with residents and community stakeholders. The cities also hosted surveys on their websites to capture residents’ proposed priorities as well as project proposals.
Following the breadcrumbs back to the data from the National Recreation and Parks Association as well as numerous recent reports and studies revealing how important parks have become to physical and mental health during the pandemic, it is no surprise that parks quickly emerged as a top priority in these listening sessions. While it remains to be seen exactly how much of the almost $200 million from the American Rescue Plan Act will be invested in local park- and recreation-related projects, community partners have continued to invest significant time and money in parks and recreation events and activities.
A few recent examples, in late June, Youngstown CityScape, Mercy Health and the Stepping Out fitness program, the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, CycWard Bike Club, and the City of Youngstown Department of Parks and Recreation organized a Healthy Community Activity Day at Spring Commons Park, located across from the B&O Station Banquet Hall. The half-day event featured community bike rides with trained ride leaders; a bike rodeo, helmet fittings and a bike giveaway for children; healthy cooking demonstrations; local history walks; and Zumba! al fresco overlooking the Mahoning River.
The purpose of the event was to draw attention to overlooked or unknown parks, like Spring Commons, and highlight all the different activities that can be organized in these public gathering spaces. Also, the entrance to Spring Commons is connected to the new Mahoning Avenue Bikepath, which is another public investment and amenity that is overlooked or unknown. The event sought to use the community bike ride as a way to demonstrate how to access and use the bike path and how it connects downtown Youngstown to Spring Commons, the B&O and the Mahoning River to Mill Creek Metroparks.
Spring Commons Park and the B&O Station are also the location for the “new” B&O Night Market, which offers produce, baked goods, herbs and plants and entertainment the first and third Thursday evenings of the month from June through September.
Additionally, Inspiring Minds, Warren Grown, and the Mercy Health Foundation will be putting Quinby Park in Warren in the spotlight as a location for an exciting new “Keeping It Fresh” initiative. “Keeping It Fresh” seeks to highlight and celebrate fresh foods, herbs and juices made from items grown locally on the west side of Warren at Warren Grown’s Front Street farm. So far, there have been two “Keeping It Fresh” tastings. The first was held on July 9 at Friendship Baptist Church and the second is set for noon to 2 p.m. on July 23 at Quinby Park, 525 Austin Ave. SW, Warren.
Inspiring Minds’ chef kicked off the series with a refreshing line up of beverages and mouth-watering food pairings: lemon spearmint iced tea, sorrel iced tea, beet and turmeric shots, pineapple cucumber limeade and cucumber watermelon refreshers to accompany fried green tomatoes and jerk chicken sliders. Some tasters at both events may go home with appliances to help them recreate the delicious recipes that were available for sampling.
PARKS ARE POTENTIAL
Though park spaces like these already offer so much, there’s work that needs to be done to make them even more active and attractive.
Parks like Spring Commons and Quinby Park are exactly that — common. Though differing in many ways, the thread that ties parks like this together is that they are beautiful, unique locations, holding so much potential. Like a seed, they just need a little nurturing in order to grow and blossom.
These parks are special spaces that foster connections to healthy activities in addition to traditional recreation. They host farmers markets, cultural celebrations, family gatherings, live entertainment and, perhaps most importantly, they are hosts for the things that create and sustain life for plants, pollinators and, ultimately, people.
PARKS DETER VIOLENCE
But because parks are designed to be places for people of many walks of life to come together, sometimes instead of creating joy, the gathering creates tension. And sometimes that tension devolves into violence. Though there have been too many tragic stories, even locally, of lives lost because of violence in parks, parks themselves can be strategies to reduce crime and violent activities.
According to research conducted by the Cornell University College of Human Ecology, “well-designed and -maintained urban parks can reduce gun violence, improve safety and keep residents healthier, while poorly-designed and -maintained parks lead to more crime.” Keywords here are “well-designed and -maintained.” In other words, consistent, sustainable investments in parks can be a starting strategy to disrupt and reduce violence and crime in our communities.
‘PARKS ARE NOT PERKS’
It also must be acknowledged that not every neighborhood or community has access to the well-designed and -maintained parks that they deserve. The Public Land Trust looked just north of the Mahoning Valley at Cleveland to talk about how “parks are not perks — they are essential infrastructure for healthy, connected, equitable, empowered communities.”
Yet, Diane Regas, president and CEO of The Trust for Public Land shared in her article, “Let’s Close the Park Equity Divide,” that “more than 100 million people in America, including 28 million children, don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of home. And parks serving communities of color are, on average, half the size of those that serve a majority-white population.”
Ms. Regas also highlights that the pandemic is not the only crisis in which parks are on the front lines to offer relief: “close-to-home parks will protect people from stronger storms, more frequent floods and hotter temperatures.” And of course, because of historic discriminatory policies like “redlining,” communities of color and low-income communities will be hardest-hit.
THEY’RE PLACES FOR SAVING GRACES
My go-to park when I was younger was Waugh (pronounced WAH) in Hubbard. You’ve probably never heard of this park — it’s not grand or glamorous. But, it was in my neighborhood, down the street, just outside my door. It was where I went with my dad and brothers to play catch. It was where I walked in the evenings, seeking peace and quiet when the world started to become too busy, too loud, too much. It was where my friends and I went to pass the time under the summer sun, on the seesaws and the swing sets, trying so hard to get high enough to touch the sky. We came so close.
This park, nestled in my neighborhood, gifted me with this refuge when I needed it. And, everyone should have a refuge like this when they need it to use however or whenever they need to.
Parks like Spring Commons, Quinby, Waugh and countless others are the sites marking beginnings, endings, reunions, departures, tears of joy and sadness, victories and defeats. They create spaces for people to come together, in a familiar, common place, to revisit favorite pastimes as well as try new things, meet new people, create new memories and participate in new experiences. They are green oases offering us places to slow down, sit under a shade tree, reconnect with ourselves, with others and with nature. They are places for saving graces — and saving lives.
PLAN FOR PARKS
So much starts with parks. And parks depend on us to come together to make sure that we invest in, care for and love them in the same way they have offered these life-giving gifts to us.
This recent cascade of cash into our communities through the American Rescue Plan Act is a rare and precious gift, for sure. And, it is a gift that could keep on giving if these resources are stewarded and used for the benefit of the greater good. Again, looking back at the National Recreation and Parks Association numbers, if three-quarters of the population of the United States visits a park at least once a year, investing in, caring for and loving our parks seems like a solid strategy to create common ground, to improve health and quality of life today, tomorrow and beyond.
In honor of National Park and Recreation Month, I encourage everyone to visit a park — an old favorite or a new adventure — and share your experience with others. Our stories and experiences can make the difference to ensure that parks do not become perks for a select few, but that parks are protected, promoted and present for everybody, everywhere.
Read more at: https://www.mahoningmatters.com/living/community-columnists/article263745108.html#storylink=cpy