Why the City of Austin Created a Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights

Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Director of Parks and Recreation Sara Hensley won the unanimous support of the city council when they recently created the document as part of a larger strategy to connect children to nature.

The city of Austin created the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights as part of a larger plan which aims to help city leaders foster key strategies that will provide more equitable and abundant connections to nature for all children. A primary focus of the plan is on greening school yards and creating a new network of school parks. (Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Steven Adler and Sara Hensley. This post is part of a series celebrating parks and nature during National Parks Week.

Over the last decade, the Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) of Austin, Texas, has been a leader in the rapidly expanding grassroots movement of organizations dedicated to getting more kids outside and educating parents, teachers and healthcare providers about the benefits of frequent connections with nature. When the Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN) Initiative — a partnership between the National League of Cities and the Children and Nature Network — was launched, Austin’s Children in Nature movement was poised to take the next step to elevate its message and work toward a more impactful interdepartmental and cross-sector scale citywide.

Concurrently, Mayor Steve Adler launched the Spirit of East Austin equity initiative to focus new energy on breaking down barriers along Austin’s eastern crescent, historically a dividing line for race and economic prosperity. The CCCN Implementation Plan, which aims to help city leaders foster key strategies that will provide more equitable and abundant connections to nature for all children, offered the perfect opportunity to bridge the missions of PARD and the mayor’s office by focusing on issues of nature access in areas of Austin that have been historically underserved.

Since research shows that children who learn and play in nature are healthier, happier and perform better in school, Austin’s CCCN Plan focuses on greening school yards and creating a new network of school parks. Austin’s CCCN Plan seeks to provide daily access to rich nature environments for tens of thousands of underserved students and strengthen communities with nearby nature across our entire city. This collaborative effort has produced a three-year implementation plan that not only connects and reinforces goals shared by PARD and the mayor’s office but also brings together multiple city departments, Austin’s Independent School District, dozens of nonprofit organizations, and the health sector.

To launch this plan, the Austin CCCN team developed the Austin’s Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights (COBOR) Resolution to serve as a public-facing symbol of the overarching goals Austin has for its children. The resolution states that children of all backgrounds and abilities have a number of inherent rights:

(City of Austin)

With strategic guidance from Austin Councilmember Leslie Pool as well as Mayor Adler, PARD built support for the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights resolution, resulting in a pledge signed by more than 1000 citizens, an official endorsement by the Austin Independent School District as a supporting partner, and the Austin City Council’s unanimous vote of approval on January 26, 2017.

City actions to bring the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights to life include the immediate implementation of the Green School Parks Project in areas of Austin with low “nature equity.” The goal of this project is to create nature-rich environments on school campuses that are co-owned by PARD and the Austin Independent School District. These school parks will serve as natural outdoor spaces for students to learn, play, and grow while at the same time providing nature-rich environments to the surrounding community outside of school hours.

The Green School Parks Project kicked off in January 2017 at Barrington Elementary and is currently in the Community Engagement Phase, taking input via a photo survey from teachers, students, parents and community members about the kinds of nature features they would like included on the school grounds. Design plans should be finalized this May, and build-out will be complete by fall 2017, in time for the new school year.

Moving into 2018 and 2019, the project will be expanded to nearby Wooldridge Elementary and Cook Elementary, with the goal of expanding the model across the Austin Independent School District over the next five to 10 years. Schools will be prioritized based on need with an innovative “Nature Equity Map” that layers nature, economic opportunity and health factors to create a “Nature Equity Score.” This map will continue to be updated and revised using the best available data to ensure nature access is being created where it is most needed in Austin.

As we continue to expand the Green School Parks Project, the Austin Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights will serve as a key communication tool across a diverse array of partners striving to promote equitable and abundant nature access in Austin. The Outdoor Bill of Rights can be adopted by any person or organization. The extent of the impact of the Outdoor Bill of Rights and the larger CCCN Plan on Austin children will depend upon PARD’s sustained support and a robust network of partners working daily to ensure that every child in Austin has the opportunity to experience nature. With this commitment in place, the city of Austin will continue to lead in connecting children to nature and improving equity across our city.

About the authors:

Steve Adler is the mayor of Austin, Texas.


Sara Hensley is the interim assistant city manager and director of parks and recreation for the city of Austin.

How the City of Grand Rapids is Amplifying Local Voices to Connect Children with Nature

Dialogue between the city’s parks and recreation department and its schools and residents has resulted in a new environmentally-focused park system – built around local history and identity – that aims to connect children to nature.

Plaster Creek, a tributary of the Grand River, runs through multiple parks, neighborhoods and commercial areas in southeast Grand Rapids, Michigan. (photo: Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department)

This is a guest post by David Marquardt and Catherine Zietse.

On a sunny afternoon last fall, neighbors from the Hispanic community in southwest Grand Rapids, Michigan, met to re-imagine the space of Roosevelt Park, a well-loved neighborhood gathering place. The group made its way past the picnic shelter and the playground to a wooded bank near a small creek that unobtrusively winds its way along the edge of the park. Conversation quieted as they paused to listen to the babbling sound of the creek water and enjoy the dappled sunlight bursting through the colorful fall leaves.

During this unexpected respite, a moment of realization occurred and a few of the women looked at each other in excitement. This space, they later explained, was just like many in their home country of Guatemala, where women frequently gather along river banks to weave and share conversations. The women noted how remarkable it would be if there were greater access to places like this in their neighborhood.

This story is just one of many shared by city residents through the robust public outreach component of Grand Rapids’ Parks and Recreation Strategic Master Plan. The story captures the desire of a community to better connect to its environment, unique cultural legacy, and neighbors. By providing a space for these connections to thrive, parks have a great impact on the quality of life of city residents. As one resident described, parks “breathe life into our city.”

“My hope for this city is that we would not only maintain our parks, but proliferate them. Through that, we can allow more children to have experiences of joy and compassion. If we understand the world around us, we can understand each other better.”

These words were shared by one of many young presenters at KidSpeak, an event at which Grand Rapids children and teenagers discuss the value of green space in their everyday lives. Organized by Our Community’s Children (a partnership between the city of Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Public Schools), this annual event gives children the opportunity to speak directly to local legislators about important issues in their community. With the theme “Planting Seeds for a Greener Grand Rapids,” many young people spoke of moments when an experience with nature made a notable impact on their lives.

The perspectives and stories shared by Grand Rapids youth during KidSpeak were an important part of shaping the vision for future green spaces incorporated in the city’s Parks and Recreation Strategic Master Plan. Other voices heard at farmer’s markets, cultural festivals, neighborhood meetings, park walks and community barbeques across the city also impacted the Master Plan vision and recommendations.

In conversations and comments regarding the Master Plan, the Grand Rapids community made it clear that they want more contact with natural spaces and local culture in their everyday lives.

Students at C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy take the classroom outdoors. (photo: Blandford Nature Center)

Grand Rapids has a unique ecological legacy created when retreating glaciers shaped the Grand River, a fertile river valley that offers striking vistas from its bluffs. The distinctive nature of the landscape is complemented by the strong identity of the people of Grand Rapids, who take great pride in celebrating the diversity of local art, music and culture in their community.

Today, Grand Rapids parks have great untapped potential to be vibrant spaces reflective of their unique ecological environment and the diverse community around them – but many of the current parks and play spaces lack distinction, making this an ideal time to restore and showcase these parks.

Parks and Schools Shared Use Partnership

The partnership between the city’s parks and recreation department and Grand Rapids Public Schools is critical to attaining an environmentally-focused park system. The relationship between parks and public schools has always been strong in Grand Rapids, and with energized leadership from Mayor Rosalyn Bliss and Superintendent Theresa Weatherall Neal, the future looks bright for the city’s children.

Much like important advocacy opportunities such as the KidSpeak event, the preservation of the Joint-Use Agreement between the parks department and Grand Rapids Public Schools provides a unique opportunity to maximize the potential of every natural area in Grand Rapids and extend the reach of green space into every neighborhood. Future collaboration in these spaces will transform parks and playgrounds into natural classrooms and learning labs where children can authentically interact with the world around them.

Instead of common playgrounds or traditional large fields of grass, the spaces in parks can be used as opportunities for discovering and exploring an area’s unique ecological environment, local history and neighborhood context. This process can be achieved by incorporating art, playground amenities, signage and programming, or other enhancements. Moving forward, the Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department plans to continue intentional engagement with teachers and children in the design of public spaces to create natural classrooms that make encounters with local ecology and culture an everyday occurrence.

Thousands of citizens in Grand Rapids have been engaged in shaping a new community- and environmentally-focused mission for the city’s parks and recreation department. Together, the city and its residents will build on months of inclusive participation to shape an equitable approach to future investment in Grand Rapids’ valued natural areas that will connect the community and its children to the city’s unique ecological environment and cherished local culture.

About the authors:

David Marquardt is the director of Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation.



Catherine Zietse is the planning and community relations coordinator at Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation and one of the department’s team leads in garnering meaningful community engagement in all park work.

Seven Cities Activate Strategies to Connect Kids to Nature

“Imagine a city known for excellent environmental education because its parks are natural classroom. As a city, we are creating greater access to nature for all of our younger residents.” -Grand Rapids, Michigan, Mayor Rosalynn Bliss

City leaders address disparities in children’s opportunities to play, grow, and learn in the outdoors through Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN), a partnership between NLC and Children & Nature Network.

In November, seven Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN) sites began implementing strategies for connecting children to nature more equitably in their cities. Mayors like Rosalynn Bliss of Grand Rapids, Michigan, seek to restore childhood to the outdoors and commissioned eight months of community dialogue, policy scans, nature-mapping, and network building to inform strategies for action, such as:

  • Developing green schoolyards and enhancing access to nature at public elementary schools and early childcare facilities
  • Connecting to nature through out-of-school time programming
  • Cultivating youth leadership and stewardship
  • Bringing more diverse groups of residents in regular contact with natural features in city park systems

The chart below indicates priority strategies among the pilot cities: Saint Paul, Minnesota; Madison, Wisconsin; Grand Rapids; Providence, Rhode Island; Louisville, Kentucky; Austin, Texas; and San Francisco.



Over the next three years, each of these cities will execute its priority strategies with peer exchange, learning and technical assistance from the CCCN partners and $50,000 grants to kick start city efforts for at least the next nine months. Prominent strategies rely on involvement of key partners such as parks and recreation agencies, school districts, out-of-school time networks, conservation and youth development organizations, and elected and community leaders, as well as adult and youth residents. A metrics framework drawing upon cities’ initial assessment practices and indicators will inform a broader field of cities and partners seeking to measure both systems-level change and direct impact on children. CCCN partners will offer additional resources for municipal action in the coming months, including in-person opportunities detailed below.

Join Us to Learn More

Representatives of the seven-city cohort will share its implementation and planning experience at the 2017 International Conference and Summit of the Children & Nature Network (C&NN), April 18-21 in Vancouver, British Columbia. C&NN extends an open invitation to a wide variety of additional participants to attend the Conference and Summit including other city leaders, planners, public health advocates, field practitioners and thought leaders committed to advancing policies, partnerships and programming for connecting children to nature.

Additionally, city parks professionals can learn more from Austin and the other CCCN cities at a May 17-19 National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) Connecting Kids to Nature Innovation Lab.

The CCCN webinar series begins with “Emerging City Strategies to Connect Children to Nature” on Thursday, February 23, from 2:00-3:00 p.m. EST. Register here to learn more about the priority strategies adopted by CCCN pilot sites.

Cities Connecting Children to Nature is a partnership between NLC and Children & Nature Network. Connect with CCCN through upcoming conferences, webinars, and our newsletter.

priya_cook_125x150About the author: Priya Cook is the Principal Associate for the Connecting Children to Nature program, the newest program of NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.

NLC and Children & Nature Network Choose Seven Cities for Planning Cohort

The continued efforts of NLC’s Cities Connecting Children to Nature initiative and the Children & Nature Network are geared towards providing children the most optimal opportunities to play, grow, and learn in the great outdoors. 

The Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN) partners have selected seven cities for the planning phase of our initiative to better connect children to nature. This phase involves activities as varied as conducting gap and asset assessments and participation in an international conference, and brings teams together from mayors’ offices, parks departments, and non-profit community organizations.

CCCN project partners the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education & Families (IYEF), the Children & Nature Network (C&NN), Outdoors Alliance for Kids, and Wilderness Inquiry selected the cities of Saint Paul, Minnesota; Madison, Wisconsin; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Providence, Rhode Island; Louisville, Kentucky; Austin, Texas; and San Francisco, California; to participate through a competitive process. Cliff Johnson, IYEF Executive Director, highlights the importance of their pioneering work. “Cities already offer a host of opportunities for their citizens to experience nature, whether in neighborhood parks or larger public lands, but not all residents typically share in these benefits. Led by the efforts of these seven cities, CCCN aims to reduce current inequities and foster connections to nature among all children.”

Over the next seven months, the selected cities will receive technical assistance from the CCCN partners for a  planning process to complete community assessments, and analyze equity issues, and will also have extensive opportunities for peer exchange and learning. Through this process, cities will develop implementation plans by August 2016, eligible for further CCCN grant funding and assistance through October 2017.


In addition to helping cities improve nature connections for children – particularly children who have had little access previously – the CCCN initiative employs funding from The JPB Foundation to test twin hypotheses: that cities constitute a valuable geographical unit for deepening the children and nature movement, and that fully engaged municipal leaders can advance efforts farther, faster, and ultimately more sustainably.

The seven-city planning cohort can look forward especially to significant learning opportunities among experts and peers gathered at the C&NN 2016 International Conference and Cities & Nature Summit. The Children & Nature Network extends an open invitation to a wide variety of additional participants to attend the Conference and Summit including other city leaders, planners, public health advocates, field practitioners, and thought leaders committed to advancing policies, partnerships and programming for connecting children to nature.

Sarah Milligan-Toffler, Executive Director of C&NN, who will host the event in St. Paul, notes that “We look forward to convening leaders from around the world to advance access to nature in low-income communities.”

The Cities & Nature Summit portion of the conference will build on CCCN  leadership academies that took place in October 2015, including attendees from the seven planning cohort cities plus nine other communities including Seattle, Washington; Salt Lake City, Utah; North Little Rock, Arkansas; St. Petersburg, Florida; Columbia, South Carolina; Charlotte, North Carolina; Knoxville, Tennessee; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and New Haven, Connecticut. At the Leadership Academies, these sixteen teams joined with each other and national experts to explore strategies for providing children with equitable and abundant access to nature, with particular focus on children of color and low-income children.

PriyaCookAbout the Author: Priya Cook is the Principal Associate for the Connecting Children to Nature program, the newest program of NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.

Mayor Ralph Becker Launches Initiative to Connect Kids with Nature

This is a guest post by Katie McKellar. The post originally appeared in Deseret News.

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker kicks off NLC’s Connecting Children to Nature Leadership Academy on Wednesday, October 7, sharing more about SLC Kids Explore and other city initiatives from the eight city teams attending from across the country.

Mayor Ralph Becker announces a new city initiative aimed at getting kids outside more to explore nature in TreeUtah's EcoGarden behind the Day-Riverside Library in Salt Lake City.

Mayor Ralph Becker announces a new city initiative aimed at getting kids outside more to explore nature in TreeUtah’s EcoGarden behind the Day-Riverside Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Eleven-year-old Jaquelin Catrejon plucked a plum from a tree in the nature gardens of Day-Riverside Library on Thursday, grinning as she took a big bite out of the fruit.

When she finished the plum, Jaquelin joined her sixth-grade classmates from Pacific Heritage Academy in a scavenger hunt of the gardens, checking off “fruit tree” from her list. She still needed to find an aspen, a speckled rock, leaves of mint and a bee.

The activity kicked off a new Salt Lake City initiative: SLC Kids Explore. NLC President and Salt Lake City, Utah, Mayor Ralph Becker launched the program to challenge local youths and their parents to spend at least 30 minutes a day outdoors for a 30-day period.

“We must nurture a populace with a personal relationship to nature and a sense of responsibility for their and our environment,” the mayor said. “By creating this program, we are opening the door to helping Salt Lake City youth connect with nature in a direct and meaningful way.”

Becker said the program is part of a national effort spearheaded by U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to promote healthy lifestyles by connecting children with nature and inspiring the next generation of outdoor stewards, who will ultimately be responsible for protecting the nation’s natural environment. Jewell visited Salt Lake City last month to announce the initiative.

Josh Lore looks at ducks during a nature walk in TreeUtah's EcoGarden behind the Day-Riverside Library in Salt Lake City

Josh Lore looks at ducks during a nature walk in TreeUtah’s EcoGarden behind the Day-Riverside Library in Salt Lake City. Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

As part of SLC Kids Explore, a directory of free nature activities is posted on a new public calendar at www.goseekdiscover.com with suggestions for different ways families can be active while having fun and exploring new areas of Salt Lake City. Those who participate can post photos of their activities on the website and earn activity pass rewards for their families.

City officials partnered with Tracy Aviary to create the list of activities.

“SLC Kids Explore addresses a national issue. Today’s kids spend less time outside than any previous generation,” said Tim Brown, Tracy Aviary executive director. “This is problematic for several reasons. Spending time outdoors has proven to improve our mental and our physical health.”

Today’s youths will be the “environmental stewards that are challenged with unprecedented environmental issues like climate change,” Brown said.

“So we need these kids to grow up with environmental values and understanding the benefits of nature,” he said.

One of Jaquelin’s classmates, Lorena Thompson, 11, said she already plays outside every day, riding her bike or playing with her dog, but she has friends who only want to play video games whenever she goes over to their houses to play.

“They say, ‘I don’t know what to do outside,'” Lorena said.

She said the SLC Kids Explore program will show kids that there are better things to do than playing video games or watching movies.

“If we’re outside, we can be more healthy and help the environment,” Lorena said. “Plus, it’s just a nice to be outside.”

About the Author: Katie McKellar is an intern at Deseret News.