The development of municipal parks and recreation departments across the United States was founded in part on the belief that well-designed programs could promote physical and social well-being through exposure to nature and the provision of opportunities for physical activity and team sports. Goals such as these, which echo the primary mission of early community recreation movements in the United States, are congruent with the current goals of various active living campaigns. Although Parks and Recreation projects are undoubtedly an essential dimension to most cities’ comprehensive plans, they are often among the first of capital improvement projects to be cut when budgets are tight.
How then, does the already vulnerable Parks and Recreation movement translate to the development priorities of rural communities? In rural North Carolina for instance, where populations are small, geographic dispersion is very common, and budgets are always in jeopardy of being cut, what role does it, or can it potentially play?
A small but growing number of rural communities across the country have begun to answer just this question, and have shed a pleasant light on the growing need for these services and facilities in their towns. Payne and Schaumleffel (2008) suggest that now, more so than ever, rural communities are turning to parks and recreation as a tool to combat rural trends such as population out-migration, substance use/abuse, rising juvenile crime rates and high school drop-out rates. Additionally, what some towns are finding is that strategic investments in parks and recreation is not only having positive effects on social indicators, but has also spurred community and economic development in some unexpected places.
Red Springs is soon to join the ranks of these communities as they undergo a comprehensive planning process for parks and recreation. Though we can only speculate as to how much of this plan will be implemented, and what impacts it might have, I for one am optimistic and look forward to seeing how it progresses.
Lumberton, whose population sits just over 20,000, is another municipality in rural NC to take this step. Having just completed the plan that Red Springs is just beginning, Lumberton’s Department of Recreation is working diligently with city and county officials, and myself to identify funding sources for initiatives within their plan. One of the more notable of these initiatives is an expansion of their greenway and trail system, which runs through several neighborhood parks and alongside parts of the Lumber River. Having recognized the opportunity presented by the proximity of the Lumber River to existing trails, park facilities, and historic downtown, Lumberton wishes to develop a continuous trail and greenway system that highlights these assets by providing linkages between the wide assortment of recreational and cultural experiences offered by the City. By building more adequate connectors, eliminating barriers to access and improving connectivity between popular destinations, this untapped resource presents an amazing opportunity to promote physical activity among Lumberton residents. Additionally, a strategic investment such as this has the potential to attract economic investment along the Lumber River and in historic downtown.
These projects are exciting examples of how Parks and Recreation planning is fitting into rural development initiatives in North Carolina and highlight the coming together of the once discrete fields of public health and city planning.