People seek out parks because they provide contact with natural and an opportunity to meet with friends, watch others and be seen – all of which helps to establish a sense of community, comfort and tranquility.
Well-designed and well-used parks and recreation areas are a great asset for local communities. But that asset can quickly become a liability when parks become unsafe and as a result, lose their value and benefit to the community. Keeping park and recreation facilities safe is a key to community wellness and has a direct relationship to their usage rate.
Research by The Citizens’ Taskforce on the Use and Security of Central Park found that there was a direct relationship between the level of park use and the perception of security: the larger the number of visitors involved in positive activities, the more likely that anti-social behavior was deterred. The taskforce linked recreational programs with improved security by suggesting that an emphasis on expanded recreation initiatives will encourage greater use and ultimately create a safer park environment.
Addressing the issue of safety in parks and open space is a complex task. The problem cannot be solved by design alone or by any one single action. What is required to create and maintain safer park spaces is an integrative strategy involving design, programming, maintenance, and citizen involvement. The key finding in park safety research shows that there is a connection between park and recreation use and safety: where people use parks in a positive way and in substantial numbers, all people feel more secure.
The factors that explain these findings emphasize the importance of greenery in improving community and personal wellness. Time spent in natural surroundings relieves mental fatigue, which in turn relieves inattentiveness, irritability, and impulsivity, recognized by psychologists as precursors to violence. Green spaces also support frequent, casual contact among neighbors.
Increasing numbers of people are expressing concern for their personal safety in urban, suburban and even rural settings. This fear of violence and the perception that an environment is unsafe is, in effect, a barrier to many people’s use and enjoyment of public space.
Fear of “undesirables” causes park after park to be remodeled without seating, shade, vendors, or other amenities that might encourage the positive public activity that discourages crime and disruption. Time and again these lessons are forgotten or abused, to the extreme detriment of quality of life.
We need to prevent ending up with downtowns and “edge cities” that are alienating and dull. Our park and recreation system is part of the glue that binds communities together. It is only through smart, well thought out planning, programming, and maintenance of parks that residents and tourists can feel safe in utilizing these wonderful resources.
The public’s need for gathering places is evident, now more than ever. The need to gather, to share stories, to celebrate, and grieve in a common place is a basic, human, and universal right. We must continue to allow and encourage the diversity, culture and commerce of all our communities to thrive in healthy, livable cities, markets, parks and neighborhoods.