One of the places that American parks began was cemeteries in the 1830s, where families would go to be closer to their deceased relatives. Since then, parks have ridden waves of prosperity and popularity, and also sunk into the nether regions of local government budgets. These changes do not correlate with changes in wealth, but with how well the public outdoor space connects to the problems we face at the time.
In the late 1800s, the intrinsic value of parks for health in crowded cities was valued and parks flourished. After World War II, cars became commonplace, and suburbs became possible. People moved out of the cities and took their money with them. Once they were in the suburbs, the importance of parks took a backseat to backyards.
For almost all of human history, being outdoors was thought of as healthy. Good things happened there. Now, technology reigns over all and the “great outdoors” is associated with negatives – danger, dirtiness, and lack of control and security. With commercial recreation and technologies such as TV, video games and handheld devices, parks have a lot of competition.
However, we know that outdoor play is important and has many benefits including weight control, stress management, reducing negative emotions, and improving cognitive function and social connectedness. These are vital components for strong, healthy well-being.
The real estate market has always shown a connection between the park and surrounding community, even if that didn’t show up in the ballot box. A National Association of Realtors survey showed that 50 percent of buyers were prepared to pay 10 percent more for the same house if it were located near a park. In Boulder, Colorado, real estate values decreased for every foot away from a park.
One way today’s cities have begun to connect parks to their communities is bringing the park to the people in the form of a parklet. This is a portion of a street – often a parking space – that is repurposed into a leisure area with seating and greenery for rest and conversation.
Another connection to today’s society is for open spaces to embrace the habits of people likely to use them, such as exploring innovative ways to incorporate the connectivity of technology with the calming effects of nature.
As some parks departments have found, forming alliances with other organizations helps to create visibility and awareness of the park, changing the public’s view of what a park can be, and therefore what support residents are willing to offer when a vote on taxes is needed, for example.
What do you do to make your park relevant? Share your ideas on our Facebook page or on Twitter using #saveplay.