Activating Your Park for Better Health and a Stronger Community
Featured photo: Neighborhood kids enjoy the playground at Rev. James Orange Park in Oakland City.
By Veronica Squires, Chief Administrative Officer at The Good Samaritan Health Center and Co-Author of How Neighborhoods Make Us Sick: Restoring Health and Wellness to Our Communities
Ten years ago, if you had asked me about the importance of the “built environment” on lifespan and longevity, I would have returned a blank stare.
That was before living in Oakland City, pre-Southwest Beltline days.
You see, growing up I had only lived in well-built environments—from the comfortable middle-class suburbs of central Florida to nice college dorms on the beautifully manicured Emory University campus. I didn’t have any exposure to the kind of blight that, over time, weathers neighborhoods and can literally take years off your life.
Recent studies have shown that a person’s lifespan is influenced more by their ZIP code than their genetic code. Further, research reveals that ZIP codes within Atlanta (and other major cities) can differ in life expectancy by 12 years or more. This is linked to the impact of factors like lack of access to healthcare, community violence, presence of toxins and predatory businesses, lack of educational and career opportunities, and other social determinants of health. Any of these determinants in isolation would be stressful, but the combined impact on the body has been likened to a steady trickle of water hitting a sidewalk. A day’s worth of drops hardly hurts anything. A month’s worth of drops might discolor the concrete. But years of drops erodes the pavement. In the body, the steady drip of environmental blight at every turn can cause chronic illness, mental health issues, or disease. Researcher J. Stern describes it this way, “genes load the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger”.
But there is hope, even for neighborhoods with the most under resourced built environments. Yet, where does one even dare to start? When the streets are lined with vacant houses, lots are overgrown by kudzu, trash is scattered everywhere, and the corner store is the only place to buy groceries—do parks even make a difference?
They do, particularly parks in low-income neighborhoods. As a shared community space, parks can catalyze improvements in health and can strengthen communities. When the Rev. James Orange Park in Oakland City received Park Pride’s Legacy Grant it spurred additional city investment and resulted in a new pool, splash pad, and playground. The residents had coalesced around a shared vision of safety, water play, kid-friendly amenities, and preservation of nature that resulted in new resources, improved health outcomes, and a stronger community.
6 Tips for Activating Your Park for Health and Stronger Communities:
- Organize a volunteer activity – not only does volunteering keep the built environment clean, but it also helps you connect and form relationships with your neighbors; and, depending on the project (such as pulling weeds, spreading mulch, or picking up trash), you can get a workout in as well!
- Walk with a Doc – get your steps in as you walk with a doc around your park with your neighbors. Not just good for your health, a walking group helps to strengthen the bonds with other members of your community and improves neighborhood safety with increased eyes on the park. You can also organize other community events that promote health such as festivals, pick-up sports games, ParkRx, and more!
- Plant a community garden – community gardens do more than provide healthy and nutritious vegetables and fruits to communities (especially significant to those located in food deserts), but they connect neighbors over a shared interest, reducing social isolation bringing positive activity into a park.
- Form a Friends of the Park group in partnership with Park Pride and work towards installing park amenities through the Grant Programs that encourage healthy behaviors, such as fitness stations, basketball courts, or a walking track.