A neighborhood park can save lives.
It seems like a bold statement, but study after study shows that access to an area where people of all ages can gather together, enjoy the outdoors and exercise leads to improved physical and mental health.
The National Recreation and Park Association cites a wealth of research that shows being active outdoors in green spaces reduces stress.
And then there are those intangible benefits. A neighborhood park can be a gathering spot for old and young, giving residents a place to get to know each other better. Those bonds can make an area stronger, with neighbors watching out for each other or working together to solve problems.
But before any of that can happen, you have to get people there.
A good gathering spot
“If you look at the overall green space in Shelby County, we have more available than in other parts of Tennessee, but the utilization of those areas is not uniform — and not all are seen as attractive,” says David Sweat, chief of epidemiology for the Shelby County Health Department.
That was the case with David Carnes Park, nine acres of green space in the Whitehaven neighborhood of Memphis. It has picnic tables and a playground space, but no parking spaces, poor lighting and Port-a-Potties rather than restrooms. Residents enjoyed the park and saw the potential for it to become a more vital part of their lives, but it wasn’t there yet.
That’s about to change. At a town hall meeting in April, the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation announced that they would invest up to $5.4 million to revitalize the space as a BlueCross Healthy Place. So what does that mean?
“This isn’t just a new swing set or a load of mulch — this is a more than $5 million investment in the Whitehaven neighborhood,” Memphis mayor Jim Strickland told attendees.
“I know that for a while now you have been telling us that you want to improve this park. We’ve heard you. We can’t do it alone. City government doesn’t have the resources to do all that we want to do. So we rely on partners like BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation. I can’t thank them enough.”
The news was greeted with cheers and applause by local attendees. One of the reasons David Carnes Park was chosen for this kind of investment was the high level of community involvement among residents, and after hearing the announcement everyone was encouraged to share their thoughts about the kinds of equipment and improvements they wanted to see in the park. After that input is collected and a plan is in place, construction will begin this summer.
What is a BlueCross Healthy Place?
The BlueCross Healthy Place program is designed to make getting out and active easier by working with the community to design a space that is tailored to the neighborhood, well-maintained and convenient.
It is the signature cause for the BlueCross Health Foundation, focusing efforts and funds in a way that allows for long-term impact on a community’s health and well-being. David Carnes Park is the first project under the program, with plans to add more communities across the state in the next few years.
“We’re proud of all the work our foundation has supported since it began awarding grants in 2005, but we know we can make a bigger impact on Tennessee communities by focusing our resources on the BlueCross Healthy Place program,” said Roy Vaughn, executive director of the BlueCross Health Foundation. “We look forward to planting them in communities large and small, all over the state, over the years to come.
Each BlueCross Healthy Place will meet the specific needs of the community where it is located, so feedback from area residents is critical. At the Whitehaven town hall, each attendee was handed a sheet of stickers to place on pictures of the equipment that could be included in their park. Did they want an obstacle course? Stick a dot on it. Splash pads? Dot. Ballfields? A 40-yard dash track? A dog park?
The purpose of this activity was to find out what residents really wanted and to ensure that the revitalized David Carnes Park has what they’re looking for. The dots were flying, and even in that earliest stage, sparked conversations.
A few weeks later, students at Whitehaven Elementary School offered their own ideas for the new Healthy Place at David Carnes Park. Fourth-grader Taylor Hudson felt that it was important that she and her classmates were asked to help.
“I’m happy they chose us children because children have brighter ideas and better imagination than adults,” she told a local news station.
The more appealing the park is to people of all ages, the more likely it will get used. Being involved in its creation gives residents a sense of ownership and pride in the space that will naturally lead them to use it.
Powered by the people
It was clear from the reactions of attendees at the town hall meeting that Whitehaven already has a strong community bond to build on. There are families who have lived in the area for generations and can recite local history with pride. Two grandsons of the late David Carnes, a local businessman and community leader who the park is named after, were on hand to cheer the news of its revitalization.
Local resident Casina Chambers embraced the BlueCross Healthy Place idea wholeheartedly, noting that she sometimes takes her kids out to Shelby Farms, an enormous park with lots of things to do that is at least 30 minutes away from home.
“They love it, but this park is closer,” she says. “Kids should be kids, to have a place to get out and be active. They like to run and play and explore and just have fun. And for the adults, we have a lot of people with diabetes in Memphis who this fitness area could help.”
“These improvements to the park can be an opportunity. It’s not just you alone; neighbors can meet and get together here.”