First, a confession.
I’m gleefully biased when it comes to parks and recreation. I spent all of my childhood playing in neighborhood parks and many years’ worth fishing their rivers and lakes, not to mention a lifetime’s worth hiking/bicycling/rollerblading/skiing the beautiful trails traversing these parks and natural areas.
My Dad was a park board commissioner throughout my youth. Since the age of 16, half of my career has been spent working for Park Districts, and I covered them as a newspaper reporter for the other half.
Suffice to say, parks are an integral part of my life. And I can confidently state with pride that sentiment ranks with the vast majority.
So I’m all on-board with the Illinois Park and Recreation Association’s “Unplug Illinois” campaign to promote the value and importance of parks to our communities.
The state of Illinois – and the Chicagoland region in particular – is a national leader in that regard. Illinois park and recreation agencies have won more Gold Medals (62) for excellence than any other state – double that of the next highest state (Colorado, 28) and triple that of California (20).
Fox Valley Park District ranks among those Gold Medal recipients, having last won the national honor in 2009 and earning top finalist accolades in its first year of eligibility (2014) following its win.
As the second largest Park District in Illinois – serving 233,000 residents in Aurora, North Aurora and Montgomery – Fox Valley’s mission to provide healthier lifestyles, sustainable environments and a thriving economy help transform these towns into communities.
It’s a collaborative effort, to be sure, involving relationship-building with fellow residents and many, many local agencies and organizations. Collectively, we’ve built and continually maintain a world-class Park District that benefits our communities at-large.
There will always be a minority of detractors who question the need for parks and open space, and budget-stressed legislators and investors who don’t quite appreciate the intersecting impacts that parks and recreation can have on property values and community health and integration, just to name a few.
The stats relating to the positive impact of parks are overwhelming – an encyclopedia’s worth. I’ll share just a few here and expound on many areas in future articles.
- In today’s America, 2 of 3 adults are either overweight or obese. In 1980, 16.6% of adults were considered clinically obese; today, that figure has doubled (33%). Childhood obesity has more than doubled in that time and quadrupled among adolescents.
- Television, video games and computers contribute to children spending more than 7.5 hours per day in front a screen, a staggering statistic.
The field of parks and recreation is well-positioned to be a front-runner in confronting these health and wellness issues. At this rate, based on just those two stats, it is a major public challenge that agencies like Fox Valley are addressing across the board.
Fox Valley is far ahead of the national curve on many of these issues. With 168 parks, 48 miles of trails and 1.6 million annual participants in its programs and events, Fox Valley is earnestly addressing community needs.
For example… more than 92 percent of Fox Valley residents live within one-half mile (considered walking distance) of a neighborhood or community park. By contrast, only 20% of American households enjoy such a luxury.
Numerous studies have shown that young adults are 2-3 times more physically active when parks or rec facilities are accessible. What’s more, parks with trails were over 25 times more likely to be used for physically active recreation vs. those without trails.
That’s all well and good, you say, but show me the money. While there are well-intentioned arguments for residential/business development vs. more parks – thus expanding the tax rolls – the big picture often tells a different story.
Consider that outdoor recreation opportunities such as boating, camping, fishing, hunting, picnicking, sightseeing, wildlife observation and bird watching, swimming and trail use create a $3.2 billion annual economic impact in Illinois, supporting 33,000 jobs.
I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. Since my days as a happy-go-lucky kid, I always knew parks were wonderful. Fifty years later, I can confirm they are essential to thriving communities, and look forward to highlighting all the benefits these local amenities provide to us each and every day. Unplug Illinois… What’s Your Outlet?
Jeff Long (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the public affairs and communications manager for the Fox Valley Park District.