Praising Public Parks
Wednesday - October 07, 2009
It’s a little amazing that, with all the money and media attention being showered on dysfunctional communities and urban decay, someone in Hawaii’s government doesn’t step up and point out the importance of public parks during these tough economic times and their ability to be major contributors to the physical and aesthetic quality of our urban communities.
Let’s face it: A park is more than a place to play games or a visual asset to a community.
There are other valuable contributions that can be made, in the way of youth development, public health and community building, to name a few. The research shows that as parks increase their role in the community, so does their importance. It is a self-reinforcing process.
The traditional view of parks and recreation departments is that they provide open spaces in crowded communities, offer recreational facilities and provide arts, culture and craft programs that are cherished by the community. Research shows that 75 percent of most communities value their parks, even if they don’t use them. The biggest reason is because a good park offers benefits and opportunities for children, many that carry on into later life (Godbey, Graete, and James 1992).
Any real estate salesperson will tell you that a park’s value to a neighborhood can be directly linked to property values. Of course, a poorly managed park can do the opposite.
On the island of Oahu, there are at least 200 parks that come under the jurisdiction of the City & County. For an economy tied to tourism, there is little question that they add aesthetic value to the highly prized “around the island tour.” That was probably more true in the good old days than it is now. The reason is simple: Resources are limited and new problems have surfaced in our communities that have pushed the worthiness of a well-financed Parks and Recreation Department to the back burner.
This slide in the importance of recreation and the worthy use of leisure time probably started in the 1960s. It slowly happened in the judicial branch of government, where a series of legal rulings from the high courts of the land put civil rights in the limelight. Remember when the courts or a family member could commit someone to a mental institute or a drug-treatment program? It became illegal, so unmanageable family members were left to fend for themselves in the community that released them. It was at that point that the problem of homelessness became a community concern, because the only place to set up housekeeping was the local park: fresh running water, restrooms, showers and free parking. Almost overnight, the issue of homelessness became a problem of the counties - they have the police forces and the responsibility of protecting the safety and welfare of everyone using the parks, homeless or not.
This is not to say that the counties should stop accommodating the homeless, but it doesn’t seem like a good idea to forget about the value that a well-run park can have for a community.
Look how far we have fallen. Most of our parks have become targets for vandals and criminals. We don’t have many, if any, park programs because we don’t have resources to finance them. Most of our famous parks are closed at sunset because of security concerns.
Recreation professionals, if there are any left, are responsible for meeting the challenges our communities are facing. With a little bit of help from community partners and by proving to government leaders that they are part of the solution simply because they have the tools - parks, people and programs - all they need is a strategy and some allies. It’s a compelling case and deserves to be on someone’s political agenda.
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