This blog post is part of the Everyday Destinations series, which focuses on increasing physical activity in small and rural communities through everyday destinations. Start your journey here.
Access to green space, such as parks, community gardens, and areas with water features (also known as blue space), can provide physical and mental health benefits. They also provide multiple social, economic, and environmental benefits, making them one of the most crucial and desired spaces in a community.
Green spaces can be routes, such as trails, providing access to community features like waterfronts and forests; destinations, such as parks and community gardens; or essential infrastructure to support physical activity, such as tree canopy over sidewalks. Green spaces near destinations can provide shade and regulate the temperature of surrounding areas, which can create more favorable conditions for active living.
The green space improvements approach involves upgrading a wide range of public amenities, such as community gardens, parks, outdoor trails, and greenways. This approach also includes creating green space incentives and requirements for new developments, such as subdivisions, infill developments, and mixed-use developments.
Proximity to, and quality of, parks and green space can vary significantly in a community. Underinvested communities may experience less access to green space or may have lower quality green spaces. Hence, improving access to parks, trails, and nature for community members that currently don't have access to such spaces can help reduce health disparities. Communities can prioritize improvements, amenities, and programs that enhance park access in underinvested neighborhoods to ensure that all residents benefit from access to green spaces.
Because green space amenities are highly desirable and can be associated with green gentrification, communities should consider strategies that prevent displacement when developing or improving green space. Connecting green space improvements with affordable housing and integrating culturally inclusive programming and design features are examples of strategies that communities can use to foster inclusion (NRPA 2018).
Green Space: Park amenities, such as picnic groves, can encourage people to spend time outdoors. Source: Public Domain.
Connection to Small and Rural Towns
Small and rural communities often have environmental assets that can serve as foundations for green space improvements. Assets such as recreational areas and agricultural lands may already be recognized as valued natural spaces due to aesthetic, recreational, and wildlife benefits (Arendt 2015).
Moreover, green spaces can attract new residents and businesses, increase jobs and income, and retain the local workforce (Rails-to-Trails Conservancy 2011). For these reasons, small and rural communities may choose to invest in green spaces through projects that restore wetland functions, connect fragmented woodlands, or increase access to parks.
Investments play an important role in developing, improving, and maintaining green spaces. Inadequate funding can contribute to a lack of parks and outdoor recreational spaces that offer amenities to encourage active living (Active Living Research 2015, Yousefian et al. 2009). Towns with traditional centers or main streets can connect destinations with desirable green spaces to encourage walkability between nearby destinations.
Case Example: Eugene, Oregon
As part of its 2018 Parks and Recreation System Plan update, Eugene, Oregon, included a variety of strategies to create high-quality, inclusive destinations. The Latino population in the city has grown by 260 percent between 1990 and 2007, and the number of residents over the age of 60 is projected to increase by 25 percent between 2010 and 2030 (City of Eugene 2019).
To address these changes, the plan included a culturally inclusive public participation process to identify green space needs and opportunities for all community members. In addition to public participation, the team used an equity mapping exercise to determine the existing distribution of parks, pools, and community centers.
As a result of these activities, Eugene identified opportunities to integrate a variety of park improvements that reflect community priorities and recognize changing community demographics. These activities shaped a community goal to "serve the entire community," which includes strategies such as increasing access to community parks and amenities in underserved areas and building inclusive facilities.
Further, the plan considers access to natural areas through an equity lens and identifies opportunities to meet accessibility standards when updating playground equipment.
Using a capital bond and operating levy, the municipality has begun to implement projects identified in the plan, including facilities updates and increased trail management (City of Eugene 2019).
Strategic Points of Intervention
Practitioners have a variety of options to help their communities improve green spaces. This section provides a non-exhaustive list of strategies that professionals with the ability to influence the built environment can use to improve access to everyday destinations. Collaboration between these professionals and public health is crucial as public health professionals can support planning approaches and engage partners but may not have the authority to implement some of the strategies identified below.
This blog encourages communication and engagement between public health and planners to discuss approaches that might be applicable in their community. For more information on the role of public health professionals in helping implement these strategies, click here. For more information on other partners that play a role in implementing the growth area identification approach, click here.
The following list of strategies can help professionals from different sectors come together and implement planning approaches that support a mix of accessible everyday destinations. Community engagement is crucial throughout every step of implementing the strategies below. Planners and public health professionals can collaborate to create equitable engagement to collect and act on community needs. Communities should select the strategies based on their context and constraints. The links at the end of actions provide more guidance materials and examples from small and rural towns across the country.
Community Visioning and Goal Setting
- Create an inventory of existing green spaces through community participation (WeConservePA n.d.). This process can help prioritize projects that improve access to quality green spaces for residents that have less or no access to green spaces.
- Engage community members to identify desired green space amenities, recognizing that community members may have different preferences (Kensington 2017), such as spaces for community events, family gatherings, and sports facilities.
- Create opportunities for community leaders to facilitate culturally sensitive conversations around green space visioning and decision making. This can be useful for understanding values and local knowledge held by underrepresented groups, including Native American communities (Droz et al. 2016).
- Highlight the importance of parks and open space as part of a community vision statement (Libertyville 2005).
- Develop goals that connect physical activity and community green spaces as part of the comprehensive plan visioning and goal setting process (Arden Hills 2018; Meridian 2019).
- Elevate the importance of connecting open space through greenways in visioning and goal-setting activities for functional plans (Thornton 2017).
- Determine a process for aligning functional plans, such as parks and recreation plans, with comprehensive and subarea plans (Meridian 2019).
- Identify and map natural areas that benefit from permanent protection in areas close to other everyday destinations.
- Prioritize green space access in areas where residents do not have access to parks within a 10– to 15–minute walk. Use geospatial data tools, such as ParkServe, to understand green space distribution and gaps across a community.
- Use greenways as a strategy to connect residents to green nodes (parks, open lots, etc.) and increase accessibility to nature (Arendt 2015, Nelson 2012).
- Identify public amenities in green spaces that encourage physical activity. Public engagement processes for plan updates can prioritize amenities valued by community members, such as playgrounds, sports facilities, and trails.
Regulations and Incentives
- Develop requirements to increase green spaces through open space conservation overlays (Clinton 2019).
Adopt conservation design standards to preserve green space. This approach protects natural features, such as floodplains, woodlands, and recreation areas.
- Adopt buffer requirements and conservation easements (legal agreements between a landowner and a government entity to conserve environmental features) to protect natural features and encourage connectedness of environmentally sensitive areas (Carroll County Code of Ordinances §86-146). These can be considered on a case-by-case basis for developments near environmental areas.
- Adopt ordinances that require public green space, including adoption of requirements for open spaces in new developments (Paw Paw 2015) and options for developers to pay into municipal funds that support public green spaces (Harahan 2008).
- Incentivize the provision of green spaces within new developments by offering expedited review processes, development fee waivers, and increased development opportunities for both commercial and residential projects.
- Consider a purchase of development rights or transfer of development rights program as options to preserve green open space (Arendt 2015). Elected officials can implement these requirements, which affect where new developments can occur. Public health and built environment professionals can support this regulatory approach when there are direct benefits to protecting green spaces that encourage active living.
- Determine whether conservation easements can protect environmental areas and create connected green space. This tool can advance not just environmental protection, but also enhance health benefits associated with more green space.
- Encourage developers to consider conservation subdivision design to protect green space and support land-use strategies that encourage walking (Arendt 1999; Wallkill 2009). Communities may recommend nature trails and sidewalks to encourage active living.
- Require developers to integrate publicly accessible parks or green space for infill development (Center for Law, Energy, & the Environment 2014).
- Coordinate across governmental bodies to identify grants and other funds to support open space acquisition and updates (Monmouth County 2020; Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection 2020).
- Identify funding mechanisms to support capital improvements and maintenance projects that create better green destinations, and provide opportunities for community members to weigh in on investments (Brookhaven 2021).
- Provide technical assistance and grants to increase green amenities in areas that lack green spaces.
- Create opportunities for public-private partnerships that encourage green space in private developments or green space stewardship by private entities on public lands, such as community gardens organized by nonprofits on public lots or nature-based activities led by vendors in public parks.
Communities have active organizations, leaders, and professionals that can contribute to implementing the strategies provided in the previous section. Built environment and public health professionals should consider, and if applicable, reach out to the following groups to implement green space improvements. These groups can also recommend other organizations that may be able to collaborate.
The following nonexhaustive list of partners offers potential starting points — there may be more partners to consider, depending on the community.
- Connect with community members to determine green space preferences, including features that encourage engagement, such as community gardens, programming, and public art.
- Build relationships with public departments, such as parks and recreation and public works, to facilitate coordinated green space improvement or development projects.
- Partner with nonprofit organizations, schools, and agencies for community members who are underserved to encourage public participation, inclusive development, and programming that increases engagement with green spaces (NRPA 2018).
- Support local businesses interested in implementing smaller green spaces such as parklets or planting street trees.
- Work in collaboration with metropolitan planning agencies to create continuous and connected networks of green spaces.
- Collaborate with municipal departments and regional entities to expand access to green spaces.
We are interested in case examples that support physical activity through everyday destinations in communities with a population less than 20,000 people. If you are aware of such communities, please share their stories with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. By directing us to such articles you can help other small and rural communities become more active and healthier.
Read this post and visit the Everyday Destinations project page for background information, additional context, and overarching considerations that support creating great communities for all.
Active Living Research. 2015. "Promoting Active Living in Rural Communities."
Arden Hills (Minnesota), City of. 2018. "City Vision." City of Arden Hills 2040 Comprehensive Plan.
Arendt, Randall. 1999. "Growing Greener: Conservation Subdivision Design." Planning Commissioners Journal, Number 33, Winter.
———. 2015. Rural by Design: Planning for Town and County. Chicago: American Planning Association.
Center for Law, Energy & the Environment. 2014. Integrating Infill Planning in California's General Plans: A Policy Roadmap Based on Best-Practice Communities. University of California Berkeley School of Law
Clinton (Ohio), Village of. 2019. "§1123.02. Open Space Conservation Overlay." Planning and Zoning Code.
Droz, PennElys, David Jaber, and Scott Moore y Medina. 2016. "Design, Place and Indigenous Ways: Working with Local Communities." Parks and Recreation Magazine, December 1.
Eugene (Oregon), City of. 2018. Parks and Recreation System Plan.
———. 2019. 2019 Eugene Parks & Recreation Bond and Levy Report.
Harahan (Louisiana), City of. 2008. "Sec. 86-37. Required reservation and dedication of public sites." Code of Ordinances.
Jennings, Viniece, Na'Taki Osborne Jelks, and James Dills. 2018. "Parks and Health Equity: An Avenue to Support Health and Wellness for All." Parks & Recreation Magazine, November 2.
Kensington (New Hampshire), Town of. 2017. Kensington Community Design Charrette.
Libertyville (Illinois), Village of. 2005. Libertyville Comprehensive Plan.
Meridian (Idaho), City of. 2019. 2040 Comprehensive Plan.
National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). 2018. Parks and Recreation Inclusion Report.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. 2011. Active Transportation Beyond Urban Centers: Walking and Bicycling in Small Towns and Rural America.
Nelson, Kevin. 2012. Essential Smart Growth Fixes for Rural Planning, Zoning, and Development Codes. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Paw Paw (Michigan), Village of. 2015. "§42-345. Green space requirements." Code of Ordinances.
Thornton (Colorado), City of. 2017. Parks and Open Space Master Plan.
WeConservePA. n.d. "Community Visioning."
Wallkill (New York), Town of. 2009. Design Guidelines for Conservation Subdivisions.
Yousefian, Anush, Erika Ziller, Jon Swartz, and David Harley. 2009. "Active Living for Rural Youth: Addressing Physical Inactivity in Rural Communities." Journal of Public Health Management and Practice 5(3): 223–31. DOI: 10.1097/PHH.0b013e3181a11822.
Active People, Healthy Nation
Active People, Healthy NationSM is a national initiative led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help 27 million Americans become more physically active by 2027. Increased physical activity can improve health, quality of life, and reduce health care costs.
Top Image: Tony Webster/flickr.com (CC by 2.0). Bike Trail in Inver Grove Heights, Dakota County, Minnesota.
About the Authors
Jo Peña is a research associate with APA.
Sagar Shah is a planning and community health manager with APA.