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Creating a health-promoting park system requires greater expertise and resources than any park agency can provide alone. What’s needed are partnerships with other public agencies, as well as with private foundations, corporations, citizens’ groups, and volunteers.

Partnerships can be immensely powerful by leveraging the strengths of one partner with those of another—financial capacity with legal authority, for instance, or communication outreach capability with large numbers of participants.

But for every triumphant alliance, there seems to be another partnership that ends badly. The key to a happy partnership is a mutual commitment to an overarching goal larger than the missions of the individual entities. If narrow goals take precedence—boosting income or donations, improving name recognition, or generating individual publicity—the alliance is almost certain to fail. Leverage is not possible when a partner is working primarily for its own interests rather than for the larger cause.

When the larger cause is advancing health, park systems and recreation programs offer one set of skills. But there are also other agencies that share the goal and have their own set of skills to bring.

These include:

  • Health departments. Health agencies possess vast knowledge, expertise, data analysis, and other capabilities that can make them ideal partners.
  • Water or sewer departments. These agencies often own significant quantities of land to protect drinking water aquifers and manage stormwater runoff. Depending on legal requirements and limitations, a partnership might make some of these lands available for  healthful recreation.
  • Public works or transportation departments. These agencies control the other big parcels of urban public land—streets, sidewalks, and bridges—and can serve as key collaborators in all kinds of physical activities—runs, walks, bike rides, and much more. The link between parks and streets should be seamless, but it takes a thoughtful partnership to make it happen.
  • Transit agencies. Good transit is the key to getting lots of people to and through major urban parks without overwhelming them with cars and the need for parking. Advertising space on transit and in transit stations is a good place to promote parks and park activities. Conversely, park users can become a new source of transit riders.

Private companies, individuals, foundations, and nonprofits that could serve as partners include:

  • Health insurers and their foundations. Health insurers have a special interest in keeping their members and the wider public healthy, and they often choose to fund programs that promote public health. Examples include support for fitness zones and trails by the foundations of insurers Kaiser Permanente and MetLife.
  • Hospitals and clinics. Frontline health care providers may be among the largest economic entities in a community. Like health insurers, they often look for ways to promote health in the community. Although there are numerous physical, practical, and legal constraints to partnerships, there are also opportunities for collaboration.
  • Doctors and nurses. What could be more natural than a prescription for physical activity? That’s what happens in Portland, Oregon’s voluntary pilot Active Youth Prescription Program. Overweight children ages 6 to 12 are given a doctor’s prescription to simultaneously reduce “screen time” and engage in programs at a city recreation center where staff are trained to provide them with support and encouragement.
  • Disease-fighting charities and recreation promoting organizations such as bike and running clubs. This is another natural collaboration. Such organizations can supply members and donors to partnerships, while park agencies can supply land, facilities, and trained leadership.
  • Sporting goods and sportswear companies. These include manufacturers and retailers of sneakers, bikes, skates, playground equipment, ski jackets, soccer balls, and so much more. Partnerships with these companies—particularly when they are hometown firms— represent an obvious alignment of interests.
  • Friends of parks groups. These, of course, are the classic partners in most cities. While few friends groups can bring any money to the table, they are an excellent source of volunteers, public outreach, advocacy, information, local connections, and other value to a park agency.

    New York’s “Shape Up” Program. Credit: NYC Department of Parks and Recreation

With eight million residents, New York has recreational programming needs that would overwhelm the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation on its own. The department therefore has an ambitious partnership with a large number of public agencies and private organizations.

Perhaps most significant is “Shape Up, New York,” a fitness initiative that encourages healthy lifestyles and improved self-esteem through noncompetitive exercise. Funded by the health department and managed by the parks department, Shape Up sessions are staffed by professionals in personal fitness, yoga, cardio kickboxing, and step aerobics and offered both in parks and at New York City Housing Authority facilities. Added to after-school programs, Shape Up provides an enjoyable, low-stress approach that can help ease even sedentary youngsters into a workable exercise regimen.

Another joint effort with the health department offers a 16-week course for diabetics at a Bronx recreation center that incorporates health instruction with an exercise regimen. A third, in conjunction with the city’s Commission on Women’s Issues, is “Step Out, New York City,” a program of organized community walks in which participants receive pedometers to track their daily steps.

New York Parks and Recreation also hosts and heavily markets four free seasonal festivals that are supported by companies including Red Bull, the Olympic Regional Development Authority, and the Mountain Creek ski facility. January’s Winter Jam encourages residents to try crosscountry skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, sledding, rock climbing‚ and hockey. The goal, according to Marketing Director Christine Dabrow, is to try new things in the outdoors, hoping that “something will spark.”

The Medical Mile, Little Rock. Credit: Little Rock Parks and Recreation

Many doctors prescribe exercise for their patients. In Little Rock, Dr. Robert Lambert and his colleagues at Heart Clinic Arkansas prescribed a path.

The result is the Medical Mile, the centerpiece of Little Rock’s Arkansas River Trail. Located in Riverfront Park and adjacent to the Bill Clinton Presidential Library, the facility offers a healthful opportunity for running, skating, walking‚ and cycling while also serving as an educational museum of information and inspiration about wellness. Among many exhibits, there is a 1,300- foot, three-dimensional mural wall, a wellness promenade‚ and a body-mind-spirit entry plaza. The themes of exercise, smoking cessation‚ and better nutrition were developed by a project partner, the Arkansas Department of Health.

The heart clinic’s involvement was catalytic to the project’s success. In December 2003, clinic physicians unanimously voted to undertake a two-year, $350,000 fundraising effort to assist the parks and recreation department in making it happen. After reaching that goal in only three months, they expanded the concept and increased the budget to $2.1 million—a goal they also met. The physicians’ success demonstrates that the medical community can go beyond traditional park donors to tap the generosity of all residents.

In dedicating the facility, Mayor Jim Dailey said, “From the perspective of the City of Little Rock, the trail is an economic, health, and environmental conservation stimulator.” Diana Allen of the National Park Service—another project partner—has called Little Rock “a cradle of innovation with health care and recreation partnerships.”

Want to know more ways urban park systems can best promote health and wellness?  Read this publication from The Trust for Public Land.

Image: Central Park in New York via Shutterstock