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Quality of Life Benefits

Properly designed open space, specifically urban parks, may help in creating social ties and a sense of community in an area. This is significant in lower income areas as the parks provide an alternative recreation and entertainment outlet that might not otherwise be available to that sector of the population. According to a 2002 poll by the Illinois Association of Park Districts, more than 80 percent of residents, in Chicago and collar counties, said that they visited a park in the past year, averaging more than a dozen visits (IL Environmental Council, 2007).

Public Health

McHenry Family

The public health benefits of parks are substantial. Researchers claim that higher concentrations of community recreational areas like "public parks, play spaces, hiking/biking trails and exercise facilities" can cause a 25 percent increase in the number of people who are physically active at least three times a week (Ewing, 2006). In another study, subjects who regularly used their local parks were "nearly three times as likely as others to achieve recommended levels of activity, regardless of how it was measured" (Giles-Corti, 2005). Greenways also yielded positive results, prompting an increase in exercise among 55 percent of survey respondents that used a new trail in southeastern Missouri. Greenway users in Indiana reported similar increases (Gies, 2006). Parks even bridge gaps between public health and social equity by providing exercise facilities to low-income residents who may find gym fees prohibitive (Gies, 2006).

Often, access to parks goes beyond promoting physical activity. A study of hospital records over 10 years revealed that "patients with tree views had shorter hospitalizations, less need for painkillers, and fewer negative comments in the nurses' notes, compared with patients with brick-wall views" (Sherer, 2006). In a study of Chicago public housing residents living in architecturally identical buildings, researchers found that residents living near vegetation "were significantly more effective in managing their major life issues than were their counterparts living in barren environments" (Kuo, 2001). Similar psychological benefits have been seen across geographies and in various demographic groups (Bedimo-Rung, 2005).

In searching for a residence, do you consider proximity to parks and/or open space a priority?

 

Community Character

Parks can also foster community among nearby residents. Another study of Chicago public housing residents found that "compared to residents living adjacent to relatively barren spaces, individuals living adjacent to greener common spaces had more social activities and more visitors, knew more of their neighbors, reported their neighbors were more concerned with helping and supporting one another, and had strong feelings of belonging" (Kuo et al., 1998). According to another expert, "Urban boundary parks like Warren Park [in Chicago's West Ridge community area] may provide the kind of setting to nurture healthy interracial and ethnic relationships, especially among children and young adults" (Gobster, 2001). In fact, parks can even be a form of cultural expression, as demonstrated by Ping Tom Park in Chicago's Chinatown neighborhood. Here, park designers spent time interviewing local residents and reviewing traditional Chinese garden design to develop a park that was truly representative of its community. Well-planned parks can also build social capital not only by providing central meeting places or cultural cohesion for surrounding neighborhoods, but also by modeling healthy behavior, like exercise, to the community at large (Bedimo-Rung et al., 2005).

The community-building aspect of parks can translate directly to issues of safety and social order. Recreational facilities provide "at-risk" youth with safe venues to socialize; places where they occupy time that might otherwise be spent on the streets. For example, some communities have benefited from "midnight basketball" programs that allow youths a late-night alternative to "finding trouble" (Sherer, 2006). The Success Through Academics and Recreational Support Programs (STARS) in Fort Myers, Florida was credited with a 28 percent drop in juvenile arrests when it began in 1990. Under this program, the city also built a recreation center within one of its low-income neighborhoods. In addition to serving as a crime deterrent to youths, it was also correlated with a spike in grades at the local schools. Social costs aside, building parks is a far lesser fiscal strain than building prisons and expanding police forces (Trust for Public Land, 2005).

Independence Grove

Once a gravel quarry between the unincorporated fringes of Libertyville and Waukegan, Independence Grove was reclaimed as a 115-acre lake and recreation center beginning in the late 90s. Now part of the Lake County Forest Preserve vast open space network, Independence Grove surveyed as the preserve's most popular park in 2003 – just two years after it opened (Waukegan News Sun, 2003). Aside from its winding trails, boat rentals, swimming beach and popular fishing spots, this "crown jewel" of the county's park system offers a series of banquet halls, plazas, and even an amphitheater to provide locals with multiple venues for family reunions, wedding receptions and other gatherings.

Potential Challenges

Accessibility is another important characteristic that may determine the success of parks and open lands. This is particularly important when planning for youth, the elderly and disabled persons. Studies indicate that people and parks should be no farther than five minutes apart by foot in dense areas or five minutes apart by bicycle in less dense sections. But, as Harnik (2006) highlights, it is not enough to measure access purely from a map. Park planners must account for significant physical barriers such as un-crossable highways, streams and railroad corridors or heavily trafficked thoroughfares. Some studies indicate that the lack of sidewalks or pedestrian crossings may prevent elderly or disabled people from accessing the park, even when close by.

When planning for youth, a study done by Frank et al reveals that the correlation between walking for transportation and proximity to parks varies according to the age group, but the most consistent indicator of young people's walking for transportation at all ages was having multiple recreation uses or open spaces within 1 kilometer of their homes (2007).

Negative Effects

It should be noted that while parks can help bind neighborhoods into legible communities, they can also work to unravel that cohesion if poorly maintained. According to research in Chicago's West Ridge community area, "perceptions of fear and safety and experiences or expectations of discomfort and physical harm resulted in reports of lowered use and displacement in time or space by one group due to another's presence, and spatial segregation of users in a park." It continues, "Additional research identified that, even if interracial and ethnic tensions do not exist, lower-income minority neighborhoods may not have access to quality open space environments like upper-income majority neighborhoods do" (Gobster, 1998). This last point is disputed in the literature. While some research claims inequity among races and socio-economic classes (Powell et al., 2004), another study, albeit from Australia, denies the existence of such disparities (Timperio et al., 2006). In Chicago, African-American neighborhoods actually have more parks than those of other racial groups, but historically, have not been funded in equal proportion to the parks in upper-income white communities (The Chicago Reporter, 2008). This emphasizes the importance of addressing maintenance and operations needs when planning park facilities.

Poorly designed and unused parks and open space may attract criminal activity which tends to be associated with the surrounding neighborhoods.

Potential Indicators

  • Public Health
    • Obesity Rates, Levels of Physical Activity, Psychological Health, Crime Rates, Neighborhood Cohesion
  • Community Character
    • Crime Rates, Academic Achievement, Neighborhood Cohesion, Tourism, Property Values

Conclusion

Parks and open lands are a nearly undisputed asset to quality of life in areas where they are well-maintained and equitably distributed. They promote physical and psychological heath as well as close community ties. Building on these fundamental assets, parks have also been correlated with lower crime, increased racial and ethnic tolerance, and even higher grades in children who live near recreation facilities. However, a major caveat of these benefits is they require well-maintained and populated park space to be realized. Largely abandoned parks that are not kept up can have an adverse effect on local communities.

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