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Study: Hoosiers' Health Linked To Quality Of Local Parks & Rec Facilities

Jill Sheridan/Indiana Public Broadcasting

Where you live and which amenities are available in your community can have a direct impact on your health.

This is the tale of parks investment in two cities where health outcomes are very different.

In Carmel, Indiana the newest playground is a $4 million facility in Central Park.  It features, a 32-foot tower with bridges, slides, numerous climbing structures and tunnels, as well as an electronic wack-a-mole and a splash pad.

Carmel mom Michelle Toles says her family takes advantage of the city’s parks systems.

“I like that Carmel has a variety in their parks,” Toles says. ”It’s not just one park over and over in different locations.”

Research shows access to parks and greenways is linked to better health. Kim Irwin is the executive director of Health By Design a nonprofit coalition that works to promote healthier places.

“When there are trails, when there are sidewalks, when there are parks that are connected by trails, by sidewalks, people are healthier,” says Irwin.

Unfortunately, the Indy metro area, which includes Carmel, has ranked the at the very bottom in a national fitness index the last three years.

The American College of Sports Medicine produces the index that measures several indicators of health. One of the measurements is investment in parks.

Irwin says for communities, that comes down to the bottom line. “That involves making choices about budgets, what we invest in and how much we invest.” Irwin says.

Though the fitness index lumped them together, a county health breakdown from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation finds some stark differences in health outcomes between two counties in the metro area.

Carmel is in affluent Hamilton County, which ranks first in health outcomes like-life expectancy.  Indianapolis is in Marion County which ranks 83 out of 92 counties

Many factors go into these health differences, but parks funding may be one.  In Carmel, Parks Department Director Mark Westermeier says the city has made a big investment in outdoor recreation--and has done so in an innovative way.

“Our budget has grown from about $1.8 million to $12 million today, and only 20 percent of that is from tax dollars,” Westermeier says.

The other 80 percent comes from revenue generated mainly from the $55 million Monon Community Center built in 2007.   The center offers fitness classes, before and after school programs and a water park that draws users from all across the area.

“Because we’re not using tax dollars to fund our operations, those dollars can be used to create new parks, specialty programs and other things that we can use to give back to the community,” Westermeier says.

The Carmel Clay Parks & Recreation Department has won numerous awards and created hundreds of jobs. The parks budget breaks down to more than $130 per city resident.

In contrast, the parks budget in Indianapolis is far lower - about $35 per resident. And the majority of the $32 million budget is taxpayer funded.

The national average is $102 per person.

Larger budgets can lead to attractive, well-maintained parks with more features which have been shown to encourage more use overall, and more active play among children.

The differences between the cities' parks departments aren’t quite as extreme as those between fictional Pawnee and Eagleton in the Indiana based TV show ‘Parks & Recreation.’

In one episode, the fictitious Pawnee Parks director Leslie Knope comments on Eagleton’s extra departments.  “There are two Eagleton departments that Pawnee does not have. The Department of Infinity Pool Design and the Department of Dressage, which I am told is a fancy horse riding thing,” Knope says.

When asked if she can relate to Parks and Rec’s passionate Leslie Knope, Indy Parks Director Linda Broadfoot says ‘yes’, though, unlike Knope, she doesn’t hold any deep seated hatred for Carmel.

“Our partners to the north are very good friends of ours,” Broadfoot says.

The reality is, Indy’s park system depends on significant support from philanthropic partners, corporate investors and a parks foundation to supplement its budget.

“We have finite resources with the city government,” Broadfoot says. “But I think we are delivering a lot for the dollars we spend at the parks department.”

Broadfoot says the department is always exploring ways to build newer and better parks,  including finding ways to generate money.

“We are not alone as a department as also needing to look at additional revenue services,” Broadfoot says.

In Carmel, the revenue is coming in every day, where people like Carmel mom Michelle Toles are frequent users of the Monon Fitness Center.

“I’ve taken classes here, my kids have taken classes here,” Toles says. “We’ve used a lot of their programs.”

She is one of more than half a million people who use the Monon Center every year.

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