Access Essential for a Great Park System
Photo: Before it was a park, the Atlanta BeltLine did not attract many visitors.
Growing up in North Carolina, I had plenty of access to the great outdoors. The back door was the gateway to hundreds of acres of woods. My brother, friends and I spent untold hours roaming those woods: exploring, creating and building trails, forts and dams. We dug up ferns, put them in our wagons and sold them throughout the neighborhood. We turned over hundreds of rocks looking for snakes, salamanders and frogs; once catching a baby copperhead in a bucket and using our hands to knock it back when it tried to escape (until some construction workers intervened when we showed off our catch).
The woods of my childhood are long gone, replaced by hundreds of suburban homes. Today’s children (including my own) are growing up with much less access to the outdoors. As our nation urbanized to meet a growing and more affluent population, we did not always set aside a little land for parks.
This fall, the Urban Land Institute, the National Recreation and Park Association and The Trust for Public Land are launching the Ten Minute Walk Campaign. Our organizations are united in the belief that urban and suburban Americans should live within a ½-mile walk of a park. Access to a safe, public space is a public good that – like roads, hospitals and schools – should be available to all.
Why do parks matter? For children, spending time outdoors is more than fun and games. Richard Louv noted in “Last Child in the Woods” that an expanding body of scientific evidence suggests that “nature deficit disorder” contributes to a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses.
For adults, parks provide a multitude of health and social benefits. Being in a park decreases stress, increases cognitive ability and lowers blood pressure. It even reduces your cholesterol level. People who live near parks know more of their neighbors have more friends, and are happier with where they live. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on The Health Benefits of a Dose of Nature (paywall), noting that we spend too much time indoors because we consistently undervalue how healthy – and happy – being outdoors makes us.
So does providing access to parks really get people outdoors?
The success of the Atlanta BeltLine provides a clear answer. For decades, virtually no one used what was a largely abandoned and overgrown freight rail corridor in northeast Atlanta. Last year, 1.7 million people walked, skated, rode a bike or otherwise spent time on that same land: the 2.5-mile Eastside Trail.
The BeltLine experience is consistent with research that shows a strong correlation between access to parks, park use and physical activity. When it comes to parks, access matters.
Like the Atlanta Beltline, the Ten-Minute-Walk Campaign has the power to transform our neighborhoods and cities for the decades to come. Through it all children – and all Americans – can have easy access to the joy and benefits that parks provide.