Recreation as Innovation: San Antonio Rethinks a Public Good

Cities should strive to provide recreation for vulnerable populations.
June 23, 2014 AT 8:00 PM
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

“In our overcrowded cities, with their constant of people, dirt and noise, some children are not so fortunate. They have no place near to go and no money to spend. What can they do with their leisure time? The fact is, in our cities where it is needed most, outdoor recreation is not available to many children who have nothing to do when school is out.” 

So said a 1970 Bureau of Outdoor Recreation video, produced to promote the agency’s program to expand existing recreational opportunities for inner-city children and increase the number of programs for low-income inner-city children. The program was, in part, a response to the 1963 National Outdoor Recreation Act, which directed the Department of the Interior “to prepare a nationwide recreation plan and provide technical assistance to states, local governments and private interests to promote the conservation and utilization of recreation resources.” 
Before this, "public recreation" had a different meaning. Sports meant stick and ball games. Playgrounds often consisted of swings made of unpainted pipe, a slide and a wooden see-saw. Everything was dirt, dust and concrete. Communities with a swimming pool might host basic lifesaving courses, but more frequently it was sink or swim. The earliest programs for older citizens often included little more than instruction in ceramics as a hobby. Parks were primarily ornamental. Recreation was treated as a luxury for a physically and financially able middle class.  
But legislation like the National Outdoor Recreation Act created an evolving national perspective on recreation, and soon there was a plethora of innovative thinking, planning and activity exploring novel ideas of what leisure and physical activity could look like. Perhaps more importantly, the 1963 act declared outdoor recreation a public good and a responsibility of government. Grants followed with money for state-of-the-art play areas. Once in motion, the process of change and innovation was infectious. Empathy for those previously excluded led to programs for the poor, the old and those with physical and mental disabilities.
The definition of recreation expanded to include physical activity and enjoyment of almost any kind. After decades of treating recreation as an add-on – the last item on the budget and the first expense to be cut – it was now a focal point for creative use of public funds and other resources to inspire more livable communities with healthier and happier citizens. In the 50 years since, the practice of public recreation has become a true profession and excellence in local recreation programs are points of civic pride. Cities and communities compete to find new ways to offer recreational opportunities to link and leverage their existing parks and programs.
This history is important for two reasons: First, it is the foundation of continuing innovation we see in cities dedicated to improving recreation for the betterment of their communities. Second, it should remind us that we must continue to strive to include vulnerable populations who likely need these opportunities most.
Two entities come to mind that are doing a particularly good job of accomplishing this. 
San Antonio
The growth of greenways and trails as recreational facilities has bolstered bicycling as an enjoyable recreational resource (not to mention a viable transportation option). But having a great place to ride is not so great if you don’t actually own a bicycle. As a response to this, San Antonio offers “Ride to Own,” a 10-week training program on bike safety, maintenance and navigation in an urban environment, which is open to the public ages 15 and older. Everyone who completes the course is given a free bike.
U.S. Army
An increase in recreation and athletic activities spawned and made popular the Paralympics and other events, and the U.S. Army is extending this concept for the more than 65,000 officers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. The program, “Inclusive Recreation for Wounded Warriors,” is designed to address issues as varied as PTSD, amputations,  and spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries. Pennsylvania State University has been instrumental in developing this program and is in the process of extending it to local recreation programs.
There’s still work to be done. Research shows access to green spaces and parks and the ability to be active decreases health risks and contributes to the overall happiness of individuals. But as Jonathan Fielding, former director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health, recently noted, today 14 percent of L.A. residents report their neighborhood does not have access to walking paths, parks or public playgrounds and 16 percent of residents live in areas they do not perceive to be safe. This is likely true of many other cities across the U.S. 
Programs like San Antonio’s are a great start. Our partners in the City Accelerator at Living Cities have identified six other cities that are pursuing innovative approaches to intractable problems.
You can judge for yourself beginning July 1 at
Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.