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Neighborhood parks, trails, greenways, playgrounds, and community gardens all serve a function in improving children's health.

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“Let’s Move Outside” Using Urban Parks and Trails

By Peter Harnik, Director, Center for City Park Excellence, The Trust for Public Land

photo of kids on bikes

New neighborhood in Denver includes easy access to parks
and natural open space


On behalf of The Trust for Public Land, I am pleased to submit comments regarding the First Lady's "Let's Move" initiative, an important step toward combating the obesity epidemic and securing the health of our citizens in decades to come. We believe that an integral piece of this is greater access to parks and schoolyards -- the nation's most widely-used resources for physical activity -- as well as an increased supply of community gardens for fresh produce and active living.

Improving access to parks, trails and schoolyards has been consistently shown to increase physical activity. A group of studies reviewed in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine shows that "creation of or enhanced access to places for physical activity" produced a 48.4 percent increase in the frequency of physical activity.[1] Another study suggested that "changing communities by offering people access to community parks, public recreation facilities, and walking and biking trails may help reduce the prevalence of overweight by promoting physical activity and healthy lifestyles."[2]

Unfortunately many children (and adults) do not live near any such amenities or only have access to inadequate park facilities. Many are not able to bicycle on a trail, visit a neighborhood park, explore a local natural area or use their own local school site for recreation. Consider Santa Ana, Calif., the eighth most densely populated place in the U.S., which has only one acre of parkland for every 1,120 residents. This is among the lowest ratio anywhere in the country. Over 75 percent of the city's 340,000 people are Latino and 20 percent live below the poverty line. With most citizens not within walking distance of a park, Santa Ana has the highest rate of overweight children in California. Further, many of the tightly-packed apartment buildings ban recreational activity, and public schoolyards are locked after school hours.

There are ways to remedy this problem. For instance, in Newark, N.J., where less than half of children live within walking distance of a park, The Trust for Public Land has worked with the city to fund and create new parks, adding easily-reachable green space for about 50,000 more residents. In New York City, fewer than half of public elementary schools provide usable playgrounds for their students, but the city, working with The Trust for Public Land, is working to transform 151 schoolyards into parks and playgrounds. This is integrating recreation into the school day while generating facilities that are neighborhood assets outside of school hours.

Community gardens are also critically valuable. In Seattle, through the renowned P-Patch Initiative, the city actively works with residents, helping to identify garden areas in parks and on other public lands. The park & recreation department then uses the gardens in youth and teen programming, teaching the essentials of nutrition and helping develop an appreciation for healthy foods.

Neighborhood parks, trails, greenways, playgrounds, and community gardens all serve a function in improving children's health. The Trust for Public Land, in conjunction with the federal Centers for Disease Control, is preparing a set of guidelines for making urban park systems more health-promoting. We look forward to sharing these results with the Task Force on Childhood Obesity when they are complete, and we hope that you will consider park systems an asset to the "Let's Move" campaign. All children deserve access to nutritious food and places to play, and parks help to meet this need. We believe that “Let’s Move” must explicitly state that children should have access to parks and other public recreational spaces.

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