Chicago Announces Strategy to Improve 300 Parks and Playgrounds

April 5, 2013

By Elena Hoffnagle

Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently announced a comprehensive strategy to rebuild, repair or refurbish 300 playgrounds in communities across Chicago, the city's first major park rehabilitation effort in 20 years. The city will implement this strategy, called "Chicago Plays," over five years and will pay for it with capital funds. The goal is for every Chicagoan to live within a 10-minute walk to a safe and vibrant park.

"The 300 playgrounds we are rebuilding in every neighborhood will be a catalyst for a better quality of life and higher standard of living for every Chicagoan," said Mayor Emanuel.

Since a majority of studies show that people who live near parks are more likely to be active, park creation is a promising strategy to encourage physical activity among children and adults, improving their health and reducing childhood obesity rates.

Many neighborhoods in cities across America lack spaces for children to play - these neighborhoods are often defined as "play deserts" and are more prevalent in underserved communities.  A 2008 study of Maryland, New York and North Carolina found that 70 percent of predominantly African-American neighborhoods and 81 percent of Hispanic neighborhoods did not have any recreational facilities.  In contrast, only 38 percent of neighborhoods with a large proportion of white residents lacked recreational facilities.

City leaders can expand access to playground facilities by mapping their location and assessing the current state of the city's parks and playgrounds: Are the parks high-quality? Are they safe and accessible? By identifying neighborhoods that are "play deserts" either because parks and playgrounds near them are unsafe, inaccessible or nonexistent, Chicago is making strides to ensure that all children in the city have opportunities for play and physical activity.

Local officials can also gain a better understanding of what facilities and park features are appealing to visitors. Various studies supported by Active Living Research, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, have found that a variety of factors promote park and playground utilization and that the most used parks have trails, playgrounds and sports facilities. Parks that provide amenities such as bicycle racks and restrooms are more likely to be used for physical activity. Park facilities that are consistently well-maintained and aesthetically appealing are associated with increased use. Park utilization among youth can also vary by age group, depending on what features are offered. In Los Angeles, a study found that the most used parks offered unique features or activities.

Beyond the basic physical structures and amenities, park utilization can be increased through a variety of innovate approaches. Some cities are experimenting with a parks prescription program, where doctors in the city are encouraged to "prescribe" that their patients visit parks. In Washington, D.C., this prescription includes toolkits that list park maps, amenities, and access points and that may make it easier for city residents to explore their local parks. In San Antonio, the city's parks and recreation department worked with the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District and Mayor Julian Castro's Fitness Council to install outdoor fitness stations in 30 city parks, the majority in underserved neighborhoods.

Parks also provide a variety of benefits to the community beyond simply increasing physical activity. Parks can reignite neighborhood pride, build a sense of community, increase property values, strengthen local economies, and encourage the formation or growth of small businesses. Parks and green space positively affect real property values for adjacent properties by as much as 25 percent. Overall, well-designed and well-maintained parks improve the quality of life of residents. A study conducted in San Francisco found that parks that were renovated were even associated with an increased perception of park safety.

NLC and its partners have developed tools to support local elected officials in their efforts to rebuild, refurbish and create parks and playspaces. Through Let's Move! Cities, Towns and Counties (LMCTC), a key component of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! initiative, NLC is helping these officials improve the health of their communities by reducing childhood obesity.

Through the initiative, local elected officials commit to five achievable and measurable goals. LMCTC Goal V: Active Kids at Play calls on local elected officials to map local playspaces, complete a needs assessment, develop an action plan, and launch a minimum of three proven policies, programs or initiatives aimed at increasing access to play. The most common strategy that local elected officials are using to achieve this goal involves creating or revitalizing parks and recreation facilities.

Sign up or learn more about Let's Move! Cities, Towns and Counties (LMCTC) at www.HealthyCommunitiesHealthyFuture.org.