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Healing America's Cities: Why We Must Invest in Urban Parks

The Trust for Public Land recently published a report that reveals an inexorable link between crime and urban neglect. Entitled "Healing America's Cities: Why We Must Invest in Urban Parks," the report uses facts and figures from studies based on recreation and land conservation programs initiated in cities across the nation. The evidence is revealing and builds a case for the vital importance of parks and recreation in our communities. Following are excerpts from this report.

The Link Between Lack of Recreation and Crime Prevention

Crime has now surpassed unemployment and economic troubles as the primary concern of most Americans. The reflexive response from political leaders is to promise more police on the streets and longer jail terms for offenders. But that approach is expensive and not necessarily effective. Violent crime in most cities has increased even after additional police officers have been hired.

According to a study by the U.S. Department of Justice, in many cities half of the young men will be arrested for assault, robbery, burglary, or other serious crimes by the age of 17. In major U.S. cities in 1992, police arrested 2.8 million people under the age of 21. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention estimates the cost of keeping one teenager in detention for a year currently approaches $30,000. Nationwide, that added up to $2.3 billion for incarceration of juveniles in 1993 — a 35% increase in spending on juvenile corrections in just five years. But more prisons and a threat of longer sentences do not necessarily deter young offenders. While California was spending $4 billion building new prisons, gang membership in Los Angeles doubled.

Congressman Bruce Vento (D-Minn.) is among an increasing number of political leaders and community activists who insist that perhaps there is a better way to fight crime. "Urban recreation and sports programs are a proven, common sense, and cost-effective means of preventing crime and delinquency," he says. "I wonder if our urban youth crime rate would be different if these programs had not been neglected in the past." Vento is cosponsoring legislation to provide crime prevention funds for parks and recreation facilities because, Vento says, "without accessible and well-maintained places to recreate, there can be no recreation."

Although criminologists have found no way to measure directly how much crime is caused by a lack of open space and recreation opportunities, plenty of evidence shows that crime frequently drops — sometimes dramatically — when these things are improved. Yet investments in parks and open space have generally been considered a low priority. As cities continue to witness rising crime and urban distress, it is becoming increasingly clear that support for parks and recreation is not a luxury — it is an investment in our own security and health and the stability of our cities.

For the same money that would put one new police officer on the street, Newark, New Jersey's Mayor Sharpe James says, the city could hire three recreation leaders who would have a much greater impact on keeping kids out of trouble and reducing crime. "The answer for those kids who are... doing wrong should not be get off the street, go home, or go to jail." James says. "We should be able to tell them where to go and what to do."

"We are going to recreate or we are going to incarcerate," says Sharpe James, President of the National League of Cities. "The choice is ours. We cannot afford to put a cop on every comer and we can't build a jail cell for every youthful offender ... so why do we continue to believe that the answer is strictly in law enforcement?"

Recreation — More Than Just Fun and Games
A full 40% of a schoolchild's waking hours are discretionary, according to a major study by the Crnegie Corporation entiltled "A Matter of Time — Risk and Opportunity in the Nonschool Hours." Frequently young teens are left alone with no adult supervision. When researchers asked adolescents what they wanted most during nonschool hours, safe parks and recreation centers topped the list

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A full 40% of a schoolchild's waking hours are discretionary. Frequently young teens are left alone with no adult supervision. When researchers asked adolescents what they wanted most during nonschool hours, safe parks and recreation centers topped the list.

"(When) you've got a high percentage of single working parents ... it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that you need after-school programs for kids," says Portland, Oregon, parks director Charles Jordan. Jordan is adamant that recreation be recognized as more than just fun and games. "We've been building high self-esteem in kids for years. We've been dealing with social harmony, conflict resolution, wellness, appreciation for education, prevention of juvenile delinquency," he says. "There is nothing quick and dirty about (crime) prevention."

As examples from across the nation make clear, community green space and recreation programs can make a difference. In Philadelphia, after police helped neighborhood volunteers clean up vacant lots and plant gardens, burglaries and thefts in the precinct dropped by 90% — from about 40 crimes each month before the cleanup to an average of only four per month. In the summertime, when Phoenix basketball courts and other recreation facilities are kept open until 2 a.m., police calls reporting juvenile crime drop by as much as 55%. But reports of crime go up again in the fall once gymnasiums go back to regular hours. Assistant parks director Dale Larsen says activities — late night swimming, volleyball, basketball, and dancing — are needed year round, but funding is not available. Compared to other crime-fighting measures, midnight recreation is a bargain. With 170,000 participants in Phoenix, the cost is sixty cents per youth.

The late Arthur J. Holland, former mayor of Trenton, New Jersey, used to talk about moving into a rundown neighborhood where he encountered teenagers who regularly pelted his home with stones. To Holland's relief, as soon as the neighborhood built a small park with a basketball court the stone throwing stopped. In 1989, Holland told the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors, "That's why I'm convinced, firsthand, that there's a direct relationship. You don't throw stones when you've got balls to throw around."

The East Bay Regional Park District in Oakland, California, is currently rehabilitating an old riding stable in the hills so that inner- city children can participate in a riding program. The program will give children an opportunity to learn how to work with a horse, how to care for it, and how to care about it. Skyline Ranch is only ten minutes from downtown Oakland by bus. The property was nearly snapped up for a condominium development until the equestrian community protested and the Trust for Public Land stepped in. TPL negotiated the sale of Skyline Ranch to the park district and helped incorporate the nonprofit Metropolitan Equestrian Preservation Society (MEPS).

When the stable reopens, MEPS hopes to operate the riding programs along with the Black Cowboys Association and another African American group called High Horse. The groups have already gone into schools and recreation centers to begin teaching children how to handle themselves at the stable. "Many of these children are kind of full of themselves, but a horse doesn't care about that," says Cynthia Hall, a TPL program director. "It's a big animal and kind of scary. But before long they are learning how to mount while the horse is moving, and riding backwards." The result, Hall says, is a big boost in self-esteem.

Building Confidence and Self-Esteem
Confidence-building programs like the one under way at Skyline Ranch have been shown to have a direct impact on crime reduction.

In Fort Myers, Florida, police have documented a 28% drop in juvenile arrests since 1990 when the city began STARS — Success Through Academics and Recreational Support — for young adolescents. To support STARS, Fort Myers built a new recreation center in the heart of a low-income community. According to Mayor Wilbur Smith, the location was controversial because many people expected the center to be plagued by crime. It has not turned out that way. The program won an award from the U.S. Conference of Mayors as the outstanding crime reduction program of 1992.

In 1991, 75% of the children enrolled in STARS were making less than a C average in school. Now 80% of the 1,500 children enrolled have brought their grades up to a C average or better. "As the mayor of a city that totally committed itself to using recreation and academic support as the vehicle for combating violent juvenile crime, I can tell you that it works," Smith says. "m my judgment it is the best, most cost-effective, and the most responsible position to take in the very complex search for solutions to juvenile crime."

Newark, New Jersey, is also beginning to see results from an aggressively expanded recreation program. The abandoned John F. Kennedy Recreation Center had been a magnet for vandalism and other crimes until the city invested $1.2 million in renovation. Now the center is used by 5,000 young

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people every month, and crime in the area has decreased. Hundreds of inner-city children are learing to ice skate, and midnight basketball is available in the summer, when criminal activity usually escalates.

Newark's tennis program, begun by the late champion Arthur Ashe, requires that kids keep up good grades to participate. Peer counseling is combined with tennis lessons several times a week in order to "foster independent thinking, self-discipline, good manners, and a healthy lifelong activity." So far, more than 6,000 teenagers have participated, and, according to Newark's program director, Charles Hardman, many of the tennis players have substantially improved their grades in school. When Ashe set up the Safe Passage Foundation that sponsors the tennis program in Newark and another one in Albany, New York, he was aware that often, when young people are frustrated they feel they have precious little to lose. In his autobiography, Days of Grace, Ashe wrote that he wanted to help youth make the transition to adulthood "without a crippling loss of faith in society and themselves. Safe Passage can hardly solve the problems of poverty, racism, juvenile delinquency, cynicism, sexual promiscuity, crime, and drug addiction. But we have an obligation to try to do something to counter this social and spiritual plague. Too many people have simply given up."

In Tampa, Florida, simply establishing the Boys & Girls Club at Rembrandt Homes, a public housing complex, helped reduce crime. Tampa Housing Authority director Audley Evans says that in the two years since the club opened, "we have seen a significant decrease in recidivism, drug trafficking, and drug activity. According to a National Park Service report, similar reductions in drug use have occurred at other public housing projects after recreation areas were renovated.

In Hart County, Georgia, Project HYDRA— Hart Youth Development ResourceAssociation — puts young first offenders into a recreation and mentor program as part of an informal probation. In HYDRA'S first year of operation, juvenile complaint calls fell by 14% and incarcerations by 25%. In Richmond, Virginia, Project READY— Recreation and Educational Activities Designed for Youth — hires at-risk youth to work on park and road beautification, providing young people with jobs and recreation while they help maintain green spaces.

The U.S. Departments of Interior and Justice are using the same concept for a Youth Environmental Service (YES) program that began in 1994: employing delinquent and at-risk teens to do environmental conservation work on federal lands. Three pilot programs are underway. In Utah, moderate offenders will be bused from Salt Lake City to work on Bureau of Land Management property. where they will spend as long as 30 days in wilderness areas. At the Big Cypress National Preserve and Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, serious and violent juvenile offenders will live and work near conservation areas, and in Washington, D.C., juvenile offenders will help the National Park Service maintain the national park and monuments within the city.

Law enforcement officials who have seen the beginnings of success from these kinds of programs are adding their voices to those calling for more resources for parks and recreation. Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block says young people are less attracted to gangs when they have other alternatives. L.A. Police Chief Willie Williams specifies that the city needs more "safe parks and healthy recreation opportunities to keep our kids off the streets and out of gangs." Samuel Saxon, director of the Prince George's County, Maryland, Department of Corrections sees the whole process as key to the nation's future. "The difference between a safe country and a country that is going down the tubes is the degree that we pay attention to the young people," he says.

Columbus, Ohio, police officer Sergeant Frank Weirick, who represents the National Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), says the fact that recreation programs can prevent youth from becoming youthful offenders is nothing new to police. The FOP began running Police Athletic Leagues (PALs) for teenagers in the 1930s and now operates 23 PALs. There is a hitch, though, in making youth programs widely available. As Weirick puts it, "the hunt for necessary funds is a dog fight."

Although criminologists have found no way to measure directly how much crime is caused by a lack of open space and recreation opportunities, plenty of evidence shows that crime frequently drops — sometimes dramatically — when these things are improved.

Founded in 1972, The Trust for Public Land (TPL) is a nonprofit conservation organization that works nationwide to conserve land for people. Through its Green Cities Initiative, TPL aims to acquire and reclaim urban lands in neighborhoods with few parks and recreation opportunities, protect open and natural lands in fast-developing metropolitan areas, and create new parks and connectors to existing parks in urban and urbanized areas.

This material was reprinted with permission from The Trust for Public Land. To obtain a copy of the full report, "Healing America's Cities: Why We Must Invest in Urban Parks," please call 1- 800-714-LAND.

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