Bill Beckner, National Recreation and Park Association: Faces of Public Health

Mar 6, 2012, 4:51 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

file Bill Beckner, National Recreation and Park Association

As the weather gets warmer, parks departments across the country are beginning to ready pools, pavements and pathways for their community residents, many of them simply adding another set of offerings to the fall classes and leagues. The Denver Parks and Recreation Department, for example, offers adaptive fitness classes for people with disabilities as well as a host of other fitness classes including yoga, martial arts and a weekly drop-in basketball game. Parks and recreation departments have long had a history of a commitment to social change and physical fitness in the United States. NewPublicHealth spoke with Bill Beckner, research director of the National Recreation and Park Association about projects and changes within the departments and the communities they have served for more than 100 years.

NewPublicHealth: Tell us a bit about the history of parks and recreation departments.

Bill Beckner: Well, the actual start of the park and recreation movement goes back to the 1800s in the inner cities, which were seeing a great deal of crime and disease and rising numbers of orphans. Settlement houses provided health, social and recreational services including playgrounds. The American Playground Association, a precursor to our organization, formed in 1906 and promoted the idea of giving children healthy outlooks, healthy conditions, air, parks and greenery, which was so different from the environment many of them lived in.

When World War I started, training for young men included recreational activities, which was how the American Camp Recreation Association started. Those activities moved to many home towns as men left the military. And home recreation had two approaches. One focused on wildlife refuges and national parks and forests, and the other on playing fields for sports such as baseball popping up in local communities. By the late 20s, the name of the Playground Association changed to the National Recreation Association and the focus was extended to recreational pursuits, including the arts.

Following World War II, because of the recreational activities that had been provided for young people in training for the war, there was an increased demand for these kinds of spaces in cities and even in rural areas.

NPH: What was the impetus for the organized programs we see in many communities now?

Bill Beckner: In 1965, the Outdoor Recreation Review Commission, a federal project, released a report about the need for playgrounds, parks and ball fields, and money was given in the form of grants to the states. States created matching grants for their communities, and so towns or cities could recoup half the cost of developing or even buying a park. And so, there was a significant increase in building things like swimming pools and baseball fields.

Programs really expanded under President Johnson, especially those aimed at underprivileged kids, and so the Park and Recreation Department in a community frequently got a lot of money to provide programs and services to disadvantaged youth in particular, beginning in the 1960s. And in the 1980s, many began providing summer breakfasts, and often lunches for children from low income families, taking the place of schools that provide the meals during the school year.

NPH: What are hallmarks of the best programs in recreation and park departments?

Bill Beckner: I’d say ones that are able to introduce people to new and interesting activities and then offer them the opportunity to learn some skills in those areas so that they can enjoy participating.

NPH: At the annual meeting of the Association, has health become more of a focus of some of the sessions?

Bill Beckner: Oh yes. I’d say that since at least the late ‘90s there have been health and wellness programs that have been offered at the National Congress. Since 2003 or so it’s been considered a "hot topic," which means that it has its own track. Recently, we’ve been involved in some of the research on key issues such as proximity of parks to groups with chronic disease or obesity, and that type of research is continuing. We’re aware for example of a recent study that found that vigorous exercise can delay the onset of Parkinson’s Disease.

NPH: What innovations do you see right now addressing critical health issues?

Bill Beckner: We’re talking currently with the folks at Community Commons, taking the research that we’ve got, which identifies parks, trails and facilities—so that you can map it. [Editor's Note: Community Commons is a resource for partners working to create healthier communities, from health departments to philanthropies to businesses.] Community Commons can put that in their database, which would add information on park and recreation departments and their facilities.

You can then overlay on that data such as crime statistics or CDC health data, and look very closely at what’s going on in communities relative to obesity, chronic disease and other life-related issues. I believe it’s going to result in much better informed citizens and policy makers and allow them to recognize that being around green space and being in parks and having recreational programs and services has a health benefit.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.