News + Updates

Developing Parks That Promote Community Health

By: Rachel Cotter, Assistant Director, Public

The relationship between access to quality parks and community health isn’t hard to grasp. With no shortage of research from the world’s most respected health organizations pointing to the many benefits of parks, which range from increased physical activity and reduced stress to improved mental health and increased social connectivity, it’s clear that parks and recreation are an integral part of developing and sustaining a healthy community.

With the understanding that physical inactivity is a primary cause of most chronic health conditions, it should come as no surprise that public investment in parks has been a priority at every level of government. Furthermore, many communities are seeing the benefits of a Health in All Policies (HiAP) approach to embed health considerations into decision-making processes across a broad array of sectors. Certainly, parks and recreation considerations are at the center of a HiAP approach.

With all of that in mind, why doesn’t every community enjoy the many benefits that come from access to quality public parks? Simply put, not all park systems are created equal, and even the most aesthetically pleasing parks may lag far behind when it comes to creating health equity.

Fortunately, creating public parks designed to realize these benefits has become a science of its own, with a set of criteria that are proven to improve the health and equity impact of parks. It’s a science that we’ve embraced here at McAdams. We’ve been fortunate enough to complete numerous public parks and recreations projects over the course of our history and it’s unquestionably among the most rewarding work that we do.

So just what are these criteria that lead turn the vision of a park with health benefits into a reality? They generally fall into three broad categories: planning, design and programming. Each of these criteria are then adapted to meet the needs of a specific community, which is a paramount consideration.  For example, what serves as a benchmark in an urban environment may be unrealistic in a rural community due to a host of demographic and infrastructure considerations.

If your community plans to embark on a parks and recreation development project, consider the factors included in each criterion:


The planning phase takes into account factors such as:

Proximity: What percentage of the population is conveniently located near the park?

Walking access: What percentage of the population has a walkable route to the park?

Financial Investment: What is the community’s investment per park user? Is the per park user investment consistent throughout an entire community’s system, regardless of the demographics surrounding an individual park?

Inclusion: Does the planning consider community context (demographics, community health, inequality)?  Are community members from underrepresented social groups invited into the planning process?


The design must consider:

Safety: Are there multiple access/entry points? Are crime prevention guidelines being followed? Have lighting types and clear sight lines been thoroughly vetted?

Access: Have all ADA requirement been met? Are there a proper number of entry points, connections to nearby neighborhoods and walkable routes to the part? Is the park easy to navigate through a visible entrance and wayfinding signs? Does access go beyond ADA requirements to promote full inclusivity for all ages and ability levels (cognitive disabilities, PTSD, etc.)?

Physical activity: Are there appropriate activities for different age groups and populations?

Social Cohesion: Does the design promote healthy social interaction?


Programming should consider similar factors, such as:

Safety: Are instructors required to achieve CPR and other safety-oriented certifications?

Access: Will lack of transportation prevent residents from participating?

Physical Activity: Will programs be developed to actively promote varying levels of physical activity?

Inclusion: Will instructors complete inclusivity training? Will programs be developed with resident feedback?  Will financial scholarships or sliding fee scales be developed to ensure access for all?

The above only begins to scratch the surface of the considerations necessary to develop a vibrant and successful public park that will be enjoyed by an entire community…while promoting health and wellness.

Click here to learn more about our expertise in the parks and recreation arena. We’d love to help your community realize its vision!