Palm Beach boasts sparkling white beaches, beautiful hotels and mansions of the rich and famous. But drive just a few miles south and the affluence disappears, to be replaced by residents challenged by social and health problems in their communities. In the three cities of Lake Worth, Greenacres and Palm Springs and surrounding vicinity, 25 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level and 70 percent of children receive free or reduced-price school lunches. Although there are 29 parks in the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) project area, park access is unequally distributed. Forty-four percent of students in the School District of Palm Beach County are overweight or obese, compared to the national average of 17 percent. The HKHC partnership is working from within the school district to promote active living and healthy eating among youth and families.
Improving Access to Parks
HKHC Project Coordinator, Erica Whitfield, who is a school district employee, creates trust and support of both the school community and district decision makers to change policies that benefit the greater community. Much of the initial work focused on establishing school community gardens, including fruit trees. Students learn how to prepare healthy meals with the produce at school and are able to take some home to share what they learn with their families. “Giving youths a reason to work outside is expected to promote a healthy lifestyle and should increase their willingness to add fruits and vegetables to their diets’” Erica adds. So far, 16 schools have established gardens with six in progress, and the school board has expressed interest in institutionalizing the gardens beyond the HKHC initiative. But the partnership isn’t just educating students and increasing access to healthy foods with the gardens. Given the high rates of overweight and obesity, the partnership also wants to work on increasing access to physical activity opportunities. Low-income families in Lake Worth have unequal access to parks, and many people in the community cannot afford gym memberships or cars to access parks in nearby neighborhoods. The partnership has started several innovative projects to increase access to physical activity in Palm Beach County by creating and improving open spaces to play through joint use agreements and the creation of new parks. Joint use agreements allow facilities and open spaces – often owned by schools, private businesses or the faith community – to be used by the community. Erica is optimistic and sets lofty, yet realistic, goals. She says, “We have a goal to put a park within walking distance of every child in the city.”
At Berkshire Elementary School, a joint use agreement will allow the community to access a newly constructed walking trail. The impetus for the project came from Berkshire Elementary School principal, Maria Bishop, who took a trip with the fourth and fifth grade safety patrol to Washington DC. Ms. Bishop was alarmed when the kids were easily exhausted just walking around the city. She came back to Palm Springs determined to improve the kids’ health through increasing fitness opportunities at Berkshire Elementary. With the help of the HKHC partnership, the school chose a two-acre site on the eastern side of campus to create a walking trail. As with most joint use agreements, liability concerns are often top of mind for the land and facility owners. In order to ease any concerns, the school leveraged funds from Florida’s Law Enforcement Trust Fund to build a fence around the walking trail in December 2012. The trail is used by the students during the day and the fencing is unlocked on weekends and holidays for families in the community to use.
HKHC has also worked outside of the school to increase opportunities for physical activity. The School District of Palm Beach County partnered with the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), the Trust for Public Land, the Quantum Foundation and Wells Fargo Bank and to develop a pocket park on a vacant lot in a school neighborhood. As a member of the recreation advisory board, Erica and others convinced the city to be in charge of maintenance and signage for the new park. The “Tropical Ridge Fitness Zone” park was completed in November 2012. To help attract people to the park, the HKHC partnership created a “fitness zone,” an area with outdoor exercise equipment. This provides visitors of all ages with opportunities to get a moderate workout. In the short time since its installation, the fitness zone is a popular attraction, and families are regularly using the space to exercise. Erica believes it is because HKHC is ”putting parks in places where people don’t normally have parks so people come excited to see what the community is doing with this park.” Erica hopes to install a playground in the park for smaller children to use while their older siblings and parents use the fitness equipment.
When it comes to playgrounds, HKHC has urged the school district to go beyond the traditional play spaces. While serving on the playground selection committee for the first LEED certified platinum school in the US, Erica encouraged the committee to consider a playground that would connect children to nature along paths known as “Nature Grounds.” This concept provides guidelines for creating and retrofitting play environments for parks and school grounds that integrate manufactured play equipment and the living landscape. The purpose of Nature Grounds is to create a dramatic shift in the standard playground development process by deliberately designing nature back into children’s lives, not only to benefit children but also to engage communities in working together to create richer play experience for all users. The playground and school will open in 2013. The city will also employ this model for the re-design of the existing Bryant Park play space near the coast of Palm Springs. The playground will be broken into individual components that will encourage people to explore alternative play opportunities, unlike the typical playgrounds.
In order to spread awareness about these spaces, the partnership has tapped into existing community networks. The City of Lake Worth serves a population of 35,000, but with an estimated 20,000 undocumented immigrants, city programming does not necessarily reflect the needs of the community. In addition, the community has diverse cultural and language challenges that include a large population of immigrant Guatemalans who speak only Q’anjob’al – neither English nor Spanish. By engaging organizations that have built trust and have experience in the community, like neighborhood associations and the CRA, the partnership has effectively let residents know of these new opportunities for physical activity in an otherwise hard to reach community.
Next on HKHC’s plate is an Open Spaces project that transforms old unpaved streets into greenways. If the city’s grant proposal is accepted it has the potential to increase people’s ability to safely walk and bicycle around the city. Erica says she “hopes to spread our innovative planning ideas on how community should look when it comes to outdoor space, and how to encourage people to utilize that space to be physically active.” Combined, these projects demonstrate strategic ways to devise new and exciting parks with limited funding and powerful partnerships. As the mayor of Palm Springs, Pam Triolo stated at the opening of the Tropical Ridge Fitness Zone, “This is a wonderful example of how numerous organizations have come together, developed a united vision, and worked collaboratively in order to benefit the residents of Lake Worth. It is amazing how much can be accomplished by focusing on our common goals.”