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.

(NLC)

(NLC)

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.

Urban Parks Transcend National Politics

The benefits of public green spaces within, or accessible to, urban areas are much greater than are often immediately understood. Here’s how cities stand to gain from increasing access to parks.

The High Line is a public park built on an historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. (Getty Images)

The High Line is a public park built on an historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. (ferrantraite/Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Jaime B. Matyas.

As the nation seeks to unite after a contentious presidential election, areas of shared commitment should be prized and pursued. One of those areas is the increasingly important role of public lands in or near urban areas. President Donald Trump previously donated land in the New York City metropolitan area for a state park, and Hillary Clinton had called for the revitalization of more than 3,000 city parks within 10 years. Their actions highlight the value of public land and its growing importance in proximity to urban areas, and they could form the foundation for productive community engagement.

The benefits of public green spaces within, or accessible to, urban areas are much greater than are often immediately understood. They include, of course, the spiritual renewal that comes from experiencing the beauty of natural habitats, the joy of recreation, and the opportunity for relief from the daily stresses of life – but other benefits are even more profound.

Public parks have an extraordinary capacity to reveal individual passions for discovery and open up career opportunities. Monique Dailey, Youth Programs Manager for the Washington, D.C. Area at the Student Conservation Association (SCA), was 10 years old before she saw her first “real park” and says that she didn’t realize at the time that “it would be my salvation from the drugs and violence that were ravaging my community.” She became a Junior Ranger in the National Park Service, then a volunteer at the Rock Creek Park Nature Center, and finally an SCA crew member in Rock Creek Park before volunteering on a national crew at Salmon Challis National Forest in Idaho and interning for a summer. When it came time to apply for college, she had 750 volunteer service hours with SCA and a glowing recommendation to the Admissions Director.

AmaRece Davis had a similar experience in Homewood, one of Pittsburgh’s poorest neighborhoods. When two of his older brothers went to prison for murder, he saw himself “heading down that same dark path.” Then he got a break. He started working with the SCA, building trails, clearing brush and planting trees around Pittsburgh. That enabled him to join an SCA crew at Sequoia National Park in California, surrounded by giant sequoia trees.

“I sat at the base of one of these giants on my 18th birthday,” he writes, “and thought about all of my friends and relatives who had never been out of Pittsburgh and of others who hadn’t even survived to be 18. I came home a different person. I had found something larger than myself, figuratively and literally. I never used to care about litter, for example, and based on all the trash on the streets where I lived, neither did anyone else. When I got back from the West, I immediately organized a recycling program at Westinghouse High School and became known as Recycling Rece.” He has gone on to attend community college and complete several SCA internships, and recently became a Pittsburgh city park ranger.

The conservation of parks also provides skills that can enhance job and career opportunities. Research conducted by the renowned Search Institute revealed that SCA participants develop such valuable traits as “expressing ideas, engaging others to reach a goal, responsibility for the greater good, sense of purpose, openness to challenge, perseverance, awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, and more.” These skills all enhance one’s ability to succeed in life and in careers. That’s why it’s so important that urban residents as well as rural ones reap the benefits of America’s public lands.

At present, visitors to our national parks are, in the words of former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, “older and whiter.” And a 2015 report by the Outdoor Foundation revealed that 73 percent of outdoor participants generally are Caucasian. But public parks can benefit all Americans – and a broadly diverse population can relate effectively to parks, which leads to more public support. Some methods that are valuable in broadening outreach in urban areas include the following:

  • Overnight Camp-Outs, which have been conducted by The White House and many governors in association with Great Outdoors Month with much success
  • Day Camps, which can provide single-day or week-long environmental education programs that introduce youth to nature-in-the-neighborhood as well as ways to be more ecologically friendly
  • Afterschool Programs, which can provide environmental education for younger children while engaging older youth in assisting with the program and with park restoration

When public parks and their conservation contribute so much to people and their communities, they are worthy of broader engagement and support – especially when so many young people need the work experience and career-enhancing opportunities that the conservation of parks can provide. In September, the unemployment rate for teenage youth (16 to 19 years old) was 15.8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, our national parks alone have a maintenance backlog of nearly $12 Billion.

Enhancing our nation’s parks and ensuring that their upkeep benefits everyone can become a point of community and national unification.

jaime_matyas_125x150About the author: Jaime B. Matyas is the president and CEO of the Student Conservation Association, the national leader in youth service and stewardship.

Top 5 Most Popular NLC Blog Posts of 2016

This year saw a number of posts that reached thousands of readers and were shared widely on social media. Here are the top five, in no particular order.

7 Ways City Leaders Can Address Racial Inequities
City leaders must step up to take the lead with their police departments and community members to address racial inequities in their respective cities and towns.

10 Innovative Ways to Attract Millennials to Your City
Philadelphia is a city that has implemented a set of successful policies aimed at attracting and retaining talent in the last decade. During that same period, the city’s population grew by 100,000.

Four Bad Habits to Avoid at City Council Meetings
Learning these principles and avoiding these bad habits will improve your meetings — and your decision-making.

5 Ways Parks Provide a Return on Investment
Parks and public spaces are an integral part of the atmosphere and culture of a city or town. More than that, though, they have a massive positive financial impact – one that is generally overlooked.

5 Things Mayors Can Do to Create Healthier Communities
NLC’s new report, Addressing Health Disparities in Cities: Lessons from the Field, provides lessons learned and examples of actions that mayors and other city leaders are taking to intentionally address childhood obesity-related health disparities.

Paul Konz headshotAbout the author: Paul Konz is the Senior Editor at the National League of Cities.

McAllen Targets Pedestrian and Cyclist Safety with Run, Ride & Share Campaign

The city of McAllen’s awareness campaign is a story of local partnerships in action.

(Getty Images)

The Run, Ride & Share campaign aims to significantly reduce pedestrian and cyclist fatalities through community-wide education. (Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Veronica Whitacre.

After four tragic deaths across South Texas, leaders from the city of McAllen, Texas, partnered with community activists and concerned citizens to address safety on city streets and highways. Created in 2014, our Run, Ride & Share awareness campaign brought together runners, cyclists and motorists to establish a unified regional effort to educate the community on the importance of sharing the road in the Rio Grande Valley. The campaign has now branched out and partnered up with other surrounding cities such as Pharr, Edinburg, Weslaco and Mission.

The success of the campaign is a direct result of the partnerships built throughout the movement. As part of the campaign, we initiated Operation Clean Sweep to get local cities working together to clean the shoulders of the roads and highways for bike safety. This operation had the added benefit of bringing together city workers to communicate as a region. The broader campaign also educates youth in our local schools through their physical education classes, and Run, Ride & Share committee members host bike rodeos as well as bike safety and bike education classes for children at special events as well as the McAllen Boys and Girls Club. The city of McAllen and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley have also worked together to implement dedicated bike lanes.

Other byproducts of the Run, Ride & Share campaign that have resulted from partnerships are emergency call boxes on our hiking and bike trails, promotional materials such as lighted arm bands and bumper stickers, and educational brochures. The campaign also leads an annual event hosted in cities worldwide called the “Ride of Silence,” which brings together residents, local shops, cycling teams and city staff to honor those who have been killed or injured while bicycling and inform motorists, police and city officials that cyclists have a legal right to use public roadways.

The campaign has received attention in local newspapers and on social media, and awareness of the campaign has increased to such an extent that, once a copyright has been approved for the Run, Ride & Share logo, the Texas Department of Public Safety has offered to guide and assist the project as well as design and print additional educational materials.

As a driver, cyclist, runner and pedestrian, I believe there’s always more to do to make our streets safe – and everyone has to do their part. We believe city-wide educational campaigns like this can significantly reduce pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, and we will continue to build relationships with other cities to get the Run, Ride & Share campaign implemented in as many communities as possible. Please join us.

About the author: Veronica Whitacre is a City Commissioner for the City of McAllen, Texas. McAllen is the first city to achieve All-Star Status in first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Cities, Towns, and Counties initiative.

National Park Service Launches NPS Urban Agenda

This is a guest post by Jonathan B. Jarvis, Director of the U.S. National Park Service.

Jefferson National Expansion MemorialThe Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Mo., exemplifies the innovative ways city leaders, businesses and NGOs are investing in new parks, new park designs, and new ways to engage communities in creating healthy and livable cities. (National Park Service)

One hundred years ago, lawmakers were considering a radical idea to preserve some of our nation’s most iconic landscapes “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Indeed, what the founders of the national park idea had in mind nearly 100 years ago was incredibly innovative – but today, we live in a different time and a different era that requires new ways of thinking and a renewed relationship between parks and the American people. Since 1916, the American public has diversified and evolved; so, too, has our need to diversify National Park Service parks and programs to answer the call of the next century.

As we prepare to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service’s establishment in 2016, we have spent a great deal of time thinking about how we can make national parks relevant to a new generation of Americans. One constant in those discussions is the importance of urban parks and National Park Service programs in urban areas.

People are often surprised to hear how urban the National Park Service is. For instance:

  • Forty of the country’s 50 most populated urban areas have national parks located within them;
  • One-third of all NPS sites are located in urban areas;
  • Thirty-six percent of all NPS visitation occurs at our urban sites – Golden Gate being the most visited;
  • NPS historic preservation tax credits have contributed significantly to preserving the character of our cities, generating more than $66 billion in private investment in historic rehabilitations; and
  • Some 30 NPS programs serve urban communities, providing funds and technical assistance for recreational facilities, environmental restoration, historic architecture, historic research, trail building, and youth engagement.

Recognizing this strong base of urban engagement and its potential to connect new audiences to national parks, last week, the National Park Service announced the Urban Agenda for the National Park Service. The Urban Agenda establishes a framework for an unprecedented strategic alignment of parks, programs and partnerships that will better serve communities.

A key component of the Urban Agenda will be realizing the core principles that call for being relevant to all Americans and creating a culture of collaboration. We have identified 10 model cities where we will develop our capacity to act as “One National Park Service” to better serve communities. To assist in activating the Agenda, we have developed a fellowship program that will deploy Urban Fellows in each model city and ultimately serve as a pipeline for growing NPS urban leaders.

The model cities were selected to provide opportunities to address a variety of challenges in spaces where we already have a national park located within the city, places that have national parks nearby, and locations that have no physical national park units, but strong ties to NPS programs. They include:

  1. Boston
  2. New York City
  3. Philadelphia
  4. Richmond, Virginia
  5. Washington
  6. Jacksonville, Florida
  7. St. Louis
  8. Detroit
  9. Tucson, Arizona
  10. Richmond, California

Importantly, the NPS Urban Agenda is supported by the President’s 21st Century Conservation agenda that calls for full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and a $326 million NPS Centennial Fund. If enacted by Congress, this would provide an additional $107 million for federal land acquisition, $47 million for state grants and $25 million for the Urban Parks and Recreation Fund, which assists economically distressed urban communities with the revitalization and improvement of recreation opportunities.

My boss, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, has launched an ambitious youth initiative that will engage the next generation of leaders and stewards through recreation, education, volunteerism, and employment. Specifically, by 2017, the Department will convene coalitions in 50 cities across the country to create more opportunities for young people to play, learn, serve, and work outdoors. The 10 NPS model cities are part of this movement, and over the next year and half, her initiative will result in investments in and support for 50 coalitions in many of our largest and most densely populated cities in the country. The Department of the Interior’s youth initiative goals include engaging 10 million kids in outdoor recreation programs; providing educational opportunities to 10 million of the nation’s K-12 students annually; engaging one million volunteers in support of public lands; and providing 100,000 work and training opportunities to young adults, including returning veterans.

This month, the National Park Service and our partner the National Park Foundation also launched a broad public awareness and engagement campaign called “Find Your Park.” This campaign extends an invitation to the public to understand the current breadth of the National Park Service stands for and rethink where and what all that a park can be.

The National Park Service recognizes that we cannot accomplish our goal of connecting the next generation to the benefits of their parks and public lands without the support and assistance of a whole host of partners. So, I invite you to join us and find ways to engage and share in a public dialogue, to learn from one another, to address the impact of climate change on our cities, to create education and employment pathways for disengaged youth, and maybe even to co-design the next great urban national park. Go out and Find Your Park.

Jonathan_Jarvis_150x183About the Author: Jonathan B. Jarvis began his career with the National Park Service in 1976 as a seasonal interpreter in Washington, D.C. Today, he manages that agency whose mission is to preserve America’s most treasured landscapes and cultural icons. Managing the National Park Service on the eve of its centennial in 2016, Jarvis has focused on several key areas that are critical for the future: enhancing stewardship of the places entrusted to the Service’s care; maximizing the educational potential of parks and programs; engaging new generations and audiences, and ensuring the welfare and fulfillment of National Park Service employees. His blueprint for the agency’s second century, A Call to Action, calls for innovative, ambitious, yet practical ways to fulfill the National Park Service’s promise to America in the 21st century.

Parks and Recreation Agencies Can Help Fill the Summer Nutrition Gap

This post was co-written by Kellie May. A version of this post appears on the National Recreation and Park Association’s blog, Open Space.

summer meals blog post(Getty Images)

In cities across the country, parks and recreation departments are often the go-to resource for quality programs and activities that help residents get active and enjoy an improved quality of life. Parks and recreation departments play a critical role in promoting health and wellness, especially among children and young people. This is particularly evident in the programs they provide to reach and engage children when they are not in school.

One of the most critical times of the year to keep children healthy is during the summer, when many children may not have access to healthy food and may not be as physically active as they are during the school year. Providing a nutritious meal to hungry kids is an important way to ensure that they are able to reach their full potential both in and out of school.

Over 21 million low-income children receive free or reduced-price meals during the school year to help them meet their daily nutrition needs – but only three million of these children are getting these meals during the summer, making the work that local parks and recreation agencies do to fill the gap during out-of-school times that much more critical.

The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), a federally funded, state administered program, enables parks and recreation departments and other entities the ability to provide free, healthy meals to children and teens in low-income communities. Parks and recreation departments often maximize their programs by pairing nutrition education with physical activities.

Serving meals at parks and recreation sites that provide physical and enrichment activities is a comprehensive approach to improving a child’s health. This approach also contributes to a community’s financial bottom line and provides a safe space for kids to play while getting a nutritious, free meal. Some of the benefits of summer meal programs include:

Kids Get Much More than a Meal
The outdoor activities and educational enrichment programs provided by parks and recreation departments can help improve a child’s physical health and contribute to his or her intellectual, emotional and social well-being.

The Saint Paul, Minn., Parks and Recreation Department provides enrichment programming at many of its meal sites. Activities such as art, cooking, science, theatre, special-themed event days, and indoor and outdoor games and sports are offered. The meals are served before and after the summer programming, and are a part of their afterschool programs during the school year.

This gives young people plenty of time to eat, socialize, and participate in a variety of activities. Parents who seek free or low-cost quality programming recognize the value of what is offered and consistently send their children to these programs. Many youth go to the sites because of the relationships they develop with the staff as well as the fun and varied programming.

The Local Economy Gets a Boost
When cities participate in federally funded meal programs such as the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and SFSP, the revenue provided by these programs can help boost the local economy. In addition, parks and recreation departments that offer afterschool programming and participate in the CACFP can move straight into serving summer meals by also participating in SFSP. This diminishes the amount of administrative paperwork required to operate both meal programs – and, if a site is providing programming through the afterschool meal program, they can easily transition to providing that same programming during the summer.

In 2014, the Montgomery County, Md., Department of Parks reached over 8,000 young people in five of their largest youth-serving programs. They have seen success in establishing a new summer program, Food, Fun and Fitness, which pairs drop-in physical and artistic activity with free meals for children under 18. This program has not only benefitted the children in the area but has resulted in a positive economic outcome for the community.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 20,000 kids under 18 live in poverty in Montgomery County. During the summer of 2014, the department of parks was able to serve 75,728 snacks and meals to these children. The county estimates that meals and snacks served through USDA meal programs like Food, Fun and Fitness have a yearly positive economic impact of over $600 per child for families that take full advantage of such opportunities.

A Safe Environment for Kids
Parks serve as public spaces for recreation and civic engagement, and can help improve quality of life in cities. When parks and recreation agencies provide summer meal programs for children, they are also providing parents with peace of mind; parents can rest assured knowing that their child is in a supervised and safe environment, often in their own neighborhood.

In Philadelphia, a city that serves nearly one million meals each summer, the Parks and Recreation Department operates “playstreets” in conjunction with their meal program. Playstreets are small, residential streets that are blocked to traffic during weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. These temporary neighborhood “parks” provide children a safe place that is close to home where they can play and enjoy a healthy meal during the summer.

To find a summer meal program site near you, call the National Hunger Hotline at 1-866-3-HUNGRY.

Jamie Nash bio photo
About the Author:
Jamie Nash is Senior Associate of Benefit Outreach in the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. To learn more about how local government leaders can support out-of-school time meal programs, contact
Jamie.

Kellie May Head shot
About the Author:
Kellie May is a Senior Program Manager at the National Recreation and Park Association. To learn more about the important role of parks and recreation in helping cities provide healthy meals during out-of-school times, contact Kellie.