Parks and rec can lead to health benefits


If you live in Miami, you enjoy great year-round weather and plenty of places to take advantage of the sunshine. It’s no wonder Miami is regularly voted as one of the nation’s healthiest cities.

But as good as things are, Miami-Dade County still needs to invest in its parks and open spaces to make sure it stays ahead of ever-increasing population demands. It is the same challenge many of our nation’s major cities face: The population increases, and people want more services. At about 2.7 million, Miami-Dade’s population is expected to reach 3 million by 2025 and 4.5 million by 2060.

As the former commissioner of New York City’s parks, I know the challenges of juggling limited resources with needs of the community while planning for long-term growth. Recognizing a potential situation, Mayor Michael Bloomberg oversaw the development of PlaNYC — an initiative to make a more sustainable city with parks at its center.

As a parks commissioner, I always admired Miami-Dade’s visionary leaders who, back in 1969, created the county’s first Open Space Master Plan. It was a model for other fast-growing areas.

And it still is.

Today’s Open Space Master Plan shows Miami understands the importance of greening by supporting projects like the Miami River Greenway, The Underline and Ludlam Trail, which all deliver multiple benefits, including improved air and water quality, alternate transportation options, new connections to the river and increased resilience.

This week, as Miami-Dade hosts its sixth Great Park Summit, it will celebrate the plan’s achievements and share with the community how the plan addresses the issues of conservation, social equity and health.

For many years, communities created parks and protected open spaces for people to enjoy. But today, we are increasingly seeing the value of parks in protecting and enhancing our environment and our health. We have seen the power of green infrastructure to improve city environments and resilience, and there is a large, and growing, body of evidence that even modest amounts of exercise can have large, positive impacts on a person’s health.

In my current role as director of city park development for The Trust for Public Land, I have visited hundreds of parks and found park directors concerned with not just providing parks, but with also making sure those parks have the kinds of amenities their residents need.

This is another area where Miami-Dade is showing other communities how things should be done. Since 2012, we have partnered with the county to build The Trust for Public Land Fitness Zone® areas, which are complexes of outdoor gyms with equipment similar to those found in local fitness clubs. Fourteen Fitness Zone® areas have been installed and now TD Bank — a corporation that has helped to make some of North America’s largest cities greener and healthier — will partner with The Trust for Public Land to build another six Fitness Zone® areas in parks across the county over the next three years.

Two sites have already been selected, and construction is under way at one. These Fitness Zone® areas are vital tools in a public health improvement movement. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost two-thirds of Miami-Dade residents are overweight, and almost 25 percent of local residents report having had no physical activity in the past 30 days.

This equipment will make a difference in lives. In Los Angeles, the installation of more than 40 Fitness Zone® areas led to nearby residents visiting parks more often to use the equipment, resulting in a 58 percent increase in the physical activity of park users.

Building ways for people to not just get outdoors, but to be physically active and get life-enhancing exercise, is the kind of forward thinking the county is known for. And in the years to come, local residents and their health will be the direct beneficiaries.

Adrian Benepe, former New York City parks commissioner, is urban director for The Trust for Public Land.