'Pocket Parks' Help City Improve Fitness, Battle Blight

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The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee)


When Scott Crosby sat in the Brass Door Irish Pub three years ago and visualized a pocket park rising from the ruins of the abandoned Burger King across the street on Madison Avenue, he was hoping to make downtown look better.

But Crosby, who is leading the Madison Avenue Park project, may wind up making more people here look - and feel - better instead.

That's because pocket parks, outdoor spaces that are usually no bigger than a fourth of an acre and are usually sandwiched between commercial businesses and housing, have been found to cause people who live nearby to walk more and to go outdoors more because they are viewed as being safe and welcoming.

And if there's one thing that Memphis needs, it's reasons for people to walk more.

A recent WalletHub report recently revealed, among other things, that Memphis was the second fattest city in the nation, and that part of the problem was fueled by inactivity.

But cures to that can be found in the spread of pocket parks.

A study published in American Journal of Health Promotion in 2014 found that pocket parks compared favorably to playgrounds when it came to boosting the physical activity of people who lived within a half-mile of them.

Researchers found that pocket parks encouraged moderate to vigorous physical activity, and that people walked at least a quarter mile to get to them. They also found that such parks, when seen as attractive and safe, may lure families with children to walk there.

Madison Avenue Park seems to already be poised to do that.

Crosby said that the park, which officially opens on April 21, will feature outdoor yoga and other physical activities. But the multileveled green space also includes a small stage and a screen where films will be shown - which further feeds into the notion of such parks being secure and fascinating enough for people to make the physical effort to get to them.

Memphis could use more such parks - because besides helping to battle obesity, pocket parks can also assist the city in battling blight.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine found that when vacant lots in poor, distressed neighborhoods are converted into green spaces or pocket parks, people living in those neighborhoods said they had begun to exercise more, and that their stress levels had dropped.

That suggests that the parks have a calming influence as well.

To be sure, Memphis already has designs on fighting blight: It recently became the first city in the nation to draft a charter document pairing city agencies and community groups up to deal with the problem.

But it should also look to Madison Avenue Park as a model for how empty lots and crumbling properties can be resurrected in struggling communities as pocket parks.

Of course, this must happen in small steps, with people unlearning sedentary habits that were formed largely because of perceptions of their neighborhoods being too dangerous to take walks in. Not every community will need a stage or gallery; successful pocket parks, like most other things, require neighborhood buy-in.

But a tiny, pretty, green space taking up a space downtown where a fast-food restaurant used to be - a place that isn't far from housing complexes where people who earn low-incomes live - can be a catalyst toward looking at how such efforts can benefit the city beyond mere beautification.

And even though Madison Avenue Park came together without any public money, creating pocket parks in Memphis' blighted neighborhoods would be worth the public expense if the tradeoff is, as the research suggests, that they stave off health problems and crime.

In that way, it can help them to lead healthier, more wholesome lives. Starting with giving them a reason to go outdoors.


Tonyaa Weathersbee

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April 2, 2017


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