Funding Public Parks Could Save Lives

If people's lives are at stake because of poorly funded parks, shouldn't we do something about it?

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This has been a bad year for state and local parks. If you’ve come across park gates that are chained shut or playgrounds that are rusting, as we have, then you know this firsthand. Budget crises have forced states to not only drastically cut park funding but consider unprecedented closures as well. The impact, as Deena Loyola, the communications coordinator for Utah’s Parks and Recreation Department, said earlier this year, is that parks (and the public) suffer because of “reduced hours, facilities that are less clean and fewer law enforcement rangers.” California, with over 60 of its 278 state parks on the chopping block for 2012, is scrambling for private philanthropy to keep as many open as possible. This neglect runs contrary to public opinion, which consistently supports parks, even in a time of shrinking budgets, because they are good for the economy, animal habitats, family bonding, community building and the growing problems of childhood obesity and nature deficit disorder — a term coined by Richard Louv, who argues that children are spending less time outdoors because of parental safety fears and the presence of TV and other electronic screens.

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But recent research suggests that parks aren’t just good for our well-being, they may even be a matter of life and death. In a December 2005 Environmental Health Perspectives article, Amy Schulz and her colleagues suggested that parks might be a protective factor in cardiovascular disease risk; an absence of safe parks may be part of why poverty leads to poorer health outcomes. Amy Auchincloss and her colleagues reported in a 2009 Archives of Internal Medicine piece that residential areas which support physical activity, by having things like ample park space, were associated with a lower incidence of Type 2 diabetes. With links like this sprouting up at increasing rates, researchers have even started to examine which specific park components offer the biggest health bang. In the September 2011 issue of the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, for example, Ariane Rung and her colleagues found that basketball courts and playgrounds offered the highest rate of energy expenditure.

Considering the state of our economy, we all know that sacrifices have to be made. The government’s supercommittee didn’t save the day, so automatic trigger cuts are lurking, not to mention that many bills are held up because of the uncertainty over deficits. Most of the concern over funding, though, is focused on health care and defense because both of these areas save lives. But what if lives are at stake because our park system is so poorly funded? Shouldn’t we prioritize the distribution of money to recreation and open space accordingly?

As advocates for children and families, one stalled bill that concerns us is S1265, which would mandate full funding for The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). It would be the most significant park legislation since the formation of the fund in 1965. This fund was designed to be a commitment to protect our natural and recreational areas without taxpayer dollars. The idea is to use $900 million a year of the fees paid by energy companies who drill offshore to support land and water resources — like lakes, parks and natural areas — onshore. Unfortunately, according to the LWCF Coalition, much of the available money has been diverted to other uses nearly every year since Congress created the fund with bipartisan support. As a result of that diversion and other cutbacks, the National Park Service (NPS) estimates that the unmet need for outdoor recreation space is $27 billion, and the NPS is facing a new 9% cut.

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Meanwhile, a report on the infrastructure of the U.S. by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave public parks and recreation a grade of C- in 2009, the year of their most recent report. Unfortunately, as 2011 comes to a close, the situation has yet to improve. It’s time to get involved, go to parks and vote for funding them as if your life depended on it. Because it just might.