Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Breaking Down Barriers: Parks and Recreation Connecting with Public Health

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Breaking Down Barriers: Parks and Recreation Connecting with Public Health

Article excerpt

As park and recreation professionals increasingly come to regard themselves as part of a system of health providers in their communities, one of the challenges they face is the difficulty in making the connection to their counterparts in public health. Why such collaboration remains difficult is puzzling--a general lack of knowledge of corresponding scopes of duties on behalf of both professions is one obvious cause. But, park and recreation agencies and public health entities in several locales are developing positive relationships and serving as examples of how such cooperation measurably benefits the health of the public.

According to the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), there are approximately 2,800 local health departments across the country, which generally have five categories of responsibility for public health: (1) Conducting community assessments to understand specific health issues and barriers to healthy activities in the population it serves; (2) Investigating health problems and health threats; (3) Preventing, reducing and containing adverse health effects from communicable diseases, disease outbreaks from unsafe food and water, chronic diseases, environmental hazards and risky health behaviors; (4) Conducting emergency preparedness activities; and (5) Implementing health promotion programs.

If you were to compare the categories of responsibility that park and recreation agencies have in their communities, such as providing parks and public open spaces for residents; protecting air and water quality through a system of protected lands, including stream valleys and floodplains; providing a comprehensive program of recreation services for residents; and serving the needs for recreation, physical activity and conservation for persons of all abilities and all ages, you would certainly agree there is major alignment with these areas of responsibility between public health and parks and recreation. However, working together for the health of the community remains challenging.

Growing Awareness of Essential Role in Health and Wellness

Dee Merriam, a community health planner for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with a background in parks and recreation, wrote a recent article in the Journal of Environmental Health ( nceh/ehs/docs/jeh/2016/jan-feb) about how public health professionals can better work together with park and recreation professionals. She says, "Everyone agrees parks and recreation provides a health benefit." Yet, she recognizes that, "A lot of public health agencies don't see the value of what parks and recreation can bring to a community." Recognition of the critical role health plays in the mission of parks and recreation has been slow to develop. Ten years ago, if you asked park and recreation professionals if they were part of a system of health providers, you would have been met with a blank stare of incomprehension. If you ask the same question in 2016, you would find almost universal agreement that parks and recreation are all about health. In the past decade there has been a groundswell of awareness within the field of parks and recreation that health and wellness should be important, mission-critical priorities, and that the public very much wants these outcomes.

Mutual Goals Promote Greater Cooperation

Alex Stone, a planner for the Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance (RTCA) program of the National Park Service, which provides technical assistance to state and local governments, says, "We all want to have healthier communities," while pointing out that there have not been good ways for parks and recreation to validate improvements in community health. "The question for us was how to integrate health in a meaningful way into our outdoor recreation planning process." She described efforts in Washington State that began with their serving on a health advisory committee with state and local representatives. …

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