Parks have the power to make our lives better. They promote health, nature and community. They spur economic development and benefit tourism. They make people happy, our neighborhoods strong and our cities sustainable. So, to celebrate parks and endorse them as safe greenspaces that positively contribute to active lifestyles and overall well-being, National Health Foundation and students in its BUILD program hosted the first South Los Angeles Park Pride (SLAPP) Day in July.
The community event brought together about 80 children and families who played games for prizes and new backpacks filled with school supplies, enjoyed nature and each other’s company, and simply relaxed.
“I hope it becomes an annual event to get everyone more involved in their community,” said one of the participants.
BUILD youth leaders invented the occasion after assessing local parks in South Los Angeles and Santa Monica for amenities, aesthetics and safety, and making recommendations to park directors aimed at boosting perceptions of parks as fun, safe and accessible outdoor spaces that enable community members to make use of their built environment.
The built environment refers to the man-made surroundings (e.g., homes, buildings, streets, open spaces and infrastructure) where we live and work. Most people don’t realize how much the built environment can affect one’s health, but if there aren’t any sidewalks or adequate parks, how can someone walk her dog or go for a run outside?
“The community doesn’t use parks because they’re too dangerous,” said Maria Mendez, one of the mothers at SLAPP Day. “People have to leave the community to have time with their kids.”
Like Mendez, many community members are hesitant to spend time in parks because of their perceived dangers. Parks can become hubs of drugs, violence and gang activity, which scares residents into staying away or relocating to a park in a neighboring city. NHF is working to change that.
For one of the BUILD teens, park equity remains important because of a memory from her childhood. Naomi Mendez described how her mom took her to the park as a baby and was threatened with a gun, which deterred her mom from returning to the park. The same experience has inspired the teen to make sustainable changes in her own built environment and to be an advocate for park equity.
It was at that same park that Naomi and other BUILD students celebrated SLAPP Day. They chose South Park as the venue because it had scored the lowest among the assessed parks in South Central LA. It had the smallest number of amenities, such as play structures and bathrooms, and was perceived by community members as the least safe and most violent.
“I noticed the need in my community, and I wanted to do my part,” said Naomi.
Community-based events, such as SLAPP Day, are essential in changing the perception of safety in South Central LA parks because the stigma surrounding parks greatly affects usage.
“It gives people a sense of security when there are so many people around,” said Maria, noting the event’s turnout. Getting people to play in the park will help them realize how safe it is and encourage them to come back, she said.
“I didn’t think it would be this successful,” said Elijah, one of the BUILD teens. “I hope our people in power see this and make changes to the built environment.”