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Parks and open spaces create a high quality of life that attracts tax-paying businesses and residents to communities. Both state and local policy makers make it easier to be healthy by prioritizing activities that promote active movement and minimize carbon emissions.
Investing in parks and facilities can revitalize urban areas, boost tourism, and safeguard the environment. But opportunities to purchase land for new trails, paths and parks are lost when local agencies are forced to cut budgets.(1) In Washington, the numbers of funded paths and trails projects are small in comparison to actual requests for trail and path funding.(2)
Our state has one of the largest and most heavily used state park systems in the United States. With 120 parks, Washington ranks fourth among all 50 states in day-use attendance. However, Washington ranks 44th in state dollars spent per park visitor. This equates to $1.13 per visitor compared to a nationwide average of $4.94 per visitor.(2) As charges for use of these parks rise, they become less and less available to low-income families.
Low-income populations, those with disabilities, and those with mobility limitations are least likely to have access to facilities for physical activity.(3,4) A collaborative approach to planning, funding, construction, and management is a critical first step in securing funds to build an infrastructure for recreational opportunities for residents in underserved areas.(3) State funders can promote local partnerships by requiring collaboration for grant applications for funding of recreation facilities.
Even when facilities are located near residents, it may be hard for some people to afford to use them. Local governments can use sliding fee scales or other systems to address disparities. Renton Parks and Recreation offers the “Adopt-a-Participant” program. Through this program, individuals can make a donation that provides registration fees for low-income children and seniors or that covers the cost of enrolling one participant in an athletic program or camp. Through its “Care to Share” program, Pullman Parks and Recreation encourages program participation by low-income youth up to age 17 years, by offering reduced fees.Everybody benefits from physical activity. Through its Access to Recreation Program, Vancouver Parks and Recreation provides the opportunity for people with disabilities to participate in special activities such as dancing, wellness walks, horseback riding and bowling. Nautilus, Inc. in Vancouver created outdoor recreational facilities open to the public for use at no cost. The facilities include an all weather football field, soccer field, softball, basketball and track. The Nautilus motto is “our backyard is your backyard.”
Once they are built, trails and paths require funding for ongoing maintenance to ensure safety and encourage their use. Parks and other recreational sites are a matter of public health and should be funded accordingly.(3,5) When they are not sufficiently funded facilities will deteriorate. Parks and cities use volunteers to maintain trails, but these programs still require funding to organize workers and assure that safety standards are maintained. Washington State Parks volunteer program provides opportunities to participate in annual maintenance events, litter patrols and friends of the park associations. Mount Vernon and Moses Lake and many other cities have similar programs.
There are several mechanisms that can be used to acquire access to land for physical activity. These are illustrated by the success of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust that includes more than 700,000 acres and provides protective right of way for trails from Puget Sound to central Washington.(6) The land is held by several entities – cities, counties, commercial enterprises and private groups, and was acquired through variety of mechanisms that include purchase, trade, donation, and conservation easements from counties and cities.
Similar projects are underway across the state. In Pierce County, the Foothills Rails-to-Trails Coalition and Forever Green Council in Pierce County are developing the Foothills Trail, a long-term rails-to-trails project that envisions connecting Mount Rainier National Park to Tacoma and across the Narrows Bridge to Gig Harbor. Anacortes Parks and Recreation Department converted a former rail corridor to a 3.3 mile paved waterfront trail. The Tommy Thompson trail provides recreational and commuting cyclists and pedestrians a means to enjoy the shore of Fidalgo Bay while providing an alternate to SR 20 for cyclists traveling to the Anacortes ferry terminal. The Active Community Task Force works with partners to link the Fidalgo Island trail system with the growing network of trails in greater Skagit County.In urban areas both new development and redevelopment offer opportunities to create public recreational spaces. The HOPE VI redevelopment project in High Point area of Seattle is creating neighborhood and pocket parks with a goal of one park per block. In Anacortes and Lacey, developers are required to provide land for neighborhood parks, pocket parks, or open space or to provide fees to the city.