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Engaging Newcomers in City Parks

New York City Parks Department

December 16, 2009

A city strategy to ensure its park system is welcoming and responsive to the needs and preferences of its newest residents

Ricardo Gambetta, Manager of Immigrant Integration Programs at the National League of Cities, shared this green project with us, a “Good Idea We Are Watching:”

Park officials, city planners and immigrant advocates are exploring opportunities to increase usage of city parks among local immigrant communities and seeking ways to incorporate these new residents into the traditional public parks system. This is especially critical given that minority and immigrant children experience high rates of obesity. The opportunity for physical activity provided by city parks can help to increase fitness and reduce obesity among immigrants.

Public parks are one of the most important assets in cities, and parks facilities should be available to all residents. One of the challenges faced by new immigrants is the lack of awareness regarding city services, which might explain their limited use of city parks and facilities in some cities.

In addition to providing health benefits and recreational activities, experts agree that city parks play an important role in the immigrant integration process. The key question is: how should city parks adapt to the recent demographic changes in their communities?

For the last few years several cities have been trying to answer that important question. For example, a 1993 study focuses on Boulder, Colo. The City of Chicago and the University of Chicago published a similar report in 1987, and the City of Indianapolis Parks Department published another study on the same topic in 2004. Most of these studies and reports show that immigrant populations represent a traditionally underserved group in the public parks system.

The New York City Parks Department recently published a report on this topic, entitled “Parks for All New Yorkers: Immigrants, Culture, and NYC Parks.” The study was the result of a public and private partnership of several organizations and was funded by New Yorkers for Parks.

The report states that ethnic and cultural background has a decisive influence over an individual’s preferences regarding recreation. Changes in demographics bring changes in the popularity of different sports.

According to the report, parks are tools for immigrant communities and serve as gathering places for social activities and interaction with other groups and communities. While newcomers use and enjoy park facilities, they encounter some language barriers that limit this use.

Another finding is that it is important for parks officials to consider their diverse international population during the planning, development and implementation of potential parks programs. Finally, the New York report mentions the financial limitations faced by the parks department and the challenges regarding potential funding for some of the recommendations and proposals suggested in the study.

Recommendations to local parks and recreation departments from this study include: recognize the importance of outreach to local immigrant organizations; train parks staff in the areas of managing diversity and cultural competence; encourage the translation of important safety information; review food concessions to include a more diverse pool of vendors; and develop internal and external immigrant friendly parks policies.

“Parks for All New Yorkers: Immigrants, Culture, and NYC Parks” can be downloaded from the New Yorkers for Parks website.

Reprinted with permission of the National League of Cities (NLC). To learn more about NLC’s Municipal Action on Immigrant Integration (MAII)programs, contact Ricardo Gambetta at gambetta@nlc.org.




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