Last week, I was granted a rare opportunity to travel to Salzburg, Austria, to participate in a Global Seminar titled The Child in the City: Health, Parks, and Play. Spending four days in conversation and deliberation with dozens of park and child development professionals from around the world, we developed guidance for an international statement outlining how cities might better support healthy childhood – especially as related to increasing access to the natural world and play.
Salzburg Global Fellows come from different countries, perspectives, and various civic roles – including government employees, nonprofit executives, program directors, and private sector professionals. There is a shared understanding that as our world is rapidly urbanizing we have an obligation to plan for how children in the city will have ample opportunities to connect with nature, lead healthy lives, and discover their world through play.
This experience affirmed for me the true assets we have in Minneapolis parks and public spaces. Not only do we have resources that most cities envy, we have legacy institutions that are actively engaged in the pursuit of innovations and leadership development aimed at improving our city and region. We can’t rest on our past successes – we have an obligation to build on our success and continue to design a Minneapolis park system that meets the needs of our whole community as we age, move, and discover new interests.
My invitation came through the University of Minnesota and was funded through a McKnight Foundation Fellowship allowing me to attend without using the limited resources of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation. With this fellowship comes the expectation that I identified the best ideas to apply within our community. It also allowed me to forge new networks beyond those easily accessible from Minneapolis that may provide insights and additional resources for meeting our mission and regional goals.
What did I learn? First, we are incredibly fortunate in Minneapolis. We have a system that was developed from the beginning with the core value that no matter where you live in the city, we should all share in the natural assets that make this region so wonderful, primarily the lakes, creeks, and rivers that define us. Because of those early decisions, nearly every home is located within 10-15 minute walk to a park, and in most cases people live less than 10 minutes from several parks and natural areas.
That said, there are quadrants of Minneapolis where children don’t enjoy those same benefits or the nearby parks do not serve emerging needs and desires. Their experience might seem more familiar to children living in less-affluent countries or under-developed regions of the world, where access to green space and parks is cut off by major highways and environmental and social barriers.
Of all the deficits in health disparity indicators, parks serve as a path to many solutions. City parks are the sole public asset where multiple global and community challenges can be addressed simultaneously, including climate resiliency, health and wellness, skill training, food security, and youth leadership. Most importantly, a healthy park system within a well-connected city can transform the experience of a child from feeling trapped and isolated into a magical and enriching time.
The advanced cities of the 21st Century are places where children thrive. There are cautionary tales to be wary of, as well – cities where wealth has greatly displaced communities of color or made affordability the primary barrier to access. Yet if we continue to strive to remain a city within a thriving park system that serves all children, Minneapolis will be in a position of leadership within a movement to redefine how our public spaces and natural areas create new opportunities for the most vulnerable of our community. Please join us as we strive to be even better.