The Power of Parks and Recreation in Building Strong NH Communities

Donna J. Kuethe, CPRP

“The Recreation and Parks sector is literally and figuratively the heart of any community, it pumps the life-giving blood through any region, touching in a meaningful way, every citizen.” – Ian Hill, Business Leader/Humanitarian


The Benefits of Parks and Recreation

Imagine a NH town or city without parks and recreation opportunities – is it a community or simply a place to live?


In the mid-1990’s concern escalated that public parks and recreation departments were often dismissed as “non-essential” and took a back seat to other municipal services. In response, the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) unveiled the Benefits Based Approach to Parks and Recreation, a research-based tool kit for recreation departments to better position themselves in their communities.


‘The Benefits are Endless’ is the catch phrase of the Benefits Approach. These endless benefits include boosting the economy, offering places for social interaction, increasing tourism, employing youth, diminishing chance of disease, and much more. While the Benefits program was a noble undertaking, almost 20 years later the perception of public parks and recreation as a non-essential community service still exists.


Parks and Recreation as Community Problem Solvers

Rather than a widespread laundry list of the many benefits offered to a community through parks and recreation, true though they may be, it may be more valuable to take a look at some of the more pressing issues facing NH communities and explore how parks and recreation can serve as a key partner in solving those issues. For the purpose of this article we’ll address the aging of NH and the obesity epidemic. Both have the potential to affect our state and communities negatively, especially in terms of health care costs. A commitment to parks and recreation can help communities tackle the potential problems associated with these issues. They are one piece of a puzzle, not the whole solution.


Parks and Recreation and the “Silver Tsunami”

Currently, NH is the fourth oldest state in the US. It is estimated that by the year 2030 one half million of NH residents - 1/3 of our population - will be 65 and over. Much of this is due to the sheer size of the Baby Boomer generation.


The term “Silver Tsunami” has been coined by Steve Norton, Executive Director for the Center for Public Policy, to describe the aging of New Hampshire. Norton’s report, entitled New Hampshire’s Silver Tsunami: Aging and the Health care system, centered on the effect the aging population will have on health care costs. However, he also recognized that there will be an effect on all services – local, county and state. The recommendation is that communities need to invest in “human capital” in an effort to grow business and attract new workers. In other words, we need to help change the course of the tsunami.


Changing the Tide

NH communities need to do what they can to attract young individuals and families to create a more balanced demographic. Young families are looking for affordable housing, good schools and a good quality of life.


Strong recreation programs, well maintained, aesthetically pleasing park and recreation facilities, and easy access to them are key components to good quality of life.


Imagine a young family looking to purchase a home in a new community. They’re considering houses in two neighboring communities. The prices and taxes are similar and include good schools. They decide to explore each community to help make the decision. In one community they find a small run down park, the play equipment is old, a swing hangs useless by one chain. There is evidence of vandalism. The park is quiet with overgrown fields.  They see no evidence of what activities, if any, occur in this park – or the community. In the neighboring community they also find a park, with well-maintained play equipment and manicured fields. There is a youth soccer game on one field and an adult softball game on another. Tennis players of varying ages fill the tennis courts. As they enter the park they pass a Recreation Department bulletin board where they find flyers posted for a variety of programs: youth sports, toddler/parent play groups, family events and activities for adults and senior adults. They make their decision to buy their home in this community.


Jobs are another important factor in attracting younger people to communities. Again, strong parks and recreation play a role. Small businesses rank open space, parks, and recreation as the number one factor in choosing a new business location.


NH’s Stay Work Play Initiative is further evidence of the importance of recreation in attracting a younger workforce to offset the aging of NH. The goal is to encourage recent college graduates to live and work in NH. Included in their mission statements is “promoting the state as a favorable place for young workers and recent college graduates to stay, work and play, when considering employment and lifestyle opportunities.” With “play” in the title, access to parks and recreation opportunities are valued when attracting a younger workforce.


When a community invests in municipal parks and recreation it is positioning itself to attract young professionals and families, helping to balance the effect of the silver tsunami.


Keeping NH’s Older Citizens Healthy and Active

On the other hand, we can only do so much. It is simply a matter of volume. As the Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) age, it is going to have an effect on our communities, whether we are successful in attracting younger people or not.


It is important that as our citizens age they stay physically active and socially connected. Access to quality recreation programming and park and recreation facilities for the current and next generation of older adults will be a key factor in determining the health of a community. Here, too, is where parks and recreation providers play a pivotal role.


Imagine a senior citizen. Her doctor has concerns she isn’t getting enough exercise and may be developing balance issues. The doctor recommends walking and Tai Chi to increase balance. This senior is lucky. At the park near her house the Recreation Department has a morning walking club and the community center offers Tai Chi on Thursday afternoons. At the walking club she makes new friends and they walk even on days the club doesn’t meet. She talks them into joining the Tai Chi class as well.


Keeping older citizens active and healthy through parks and recreation plays a positive role in the impact the aging population will have on our health care systems. The biggest consumers of health care dollars are our youngest and oldest citizens. Municipal Recreation programs that offer such programs as yoga, Tai Chi, walking programs, etc. are helping to keep our older populations active and healthy. Many of these programs can be adapted for all sorts of physical impairments and limitations.


However, there is a challenge that faces New Hampshire’s park and recreation providers.  This next generation of older adults, the Baby Boomers, will not be content with traditional senior programming and in fact may be reluctant to participate in programs or set foot in facilities with the word “senior” it it’s title.  Currently many recreation departments are finding it necessary to offer a wider variety of programming for their older citizens: more traditional senior programs for the current generation of seniors and something new for the Boomers.


Replacing Bingo with White Water Rafting – Programming for the Boomers

Those in the Boomer generation often see themselves as younger than their chronological age and are reluctant to accept limits on their activities.  New Hampshire’s park and recreation professionals will need to be proactive in offering programs that will appeal to this group.


The immediate challenge facing parks and recreation professionals is in programming for today’s seniors while adding programs that appeal to the Baby Boomers. Municipal Recreation and Parks Departments in New Hampshire have had to adjust their “senior” programming to accommodate the Boomers.  Departments are offering more traditional senior programs such as senior trips, “sit and stretch”, senior socials, etc. for one group, while adding snowshoeing, 50+ sports leagues, pickle ball leagues, tennis leagues and volunteer opportunities for another – and refraining from calling these “senior programs.”


Gilford Parks and Recreation offers both a Senior Momentum Program (a more traditional senior program) and snowshoe trips, hiking adventures and other activities geared to active older adults.


Moultonborough Recreation Department has expanded its summer programming to add “Operation Active Recreation,” a more activity-based program geared to active adults ages 55+ which includes hiking, trips for wine tasting, pickle ball, literary tours and more. In addition, a volunteer program is being developed to assist the recreation department by training volunteers (55+) to assist with chaperoning trips.


Parks and recreation professionals will need to be trained to better satisfy this generation’s hungry recreation appetite.


The Obesity Epidemic

Another issue facing New Hampshire that has a potentially devastating impact on our local and state resources is the obesity epidemic. According to the National Recreation and Park Association, the challenges for the future are to demonstrate how public parks and recreation are a part of the health care system.


The statistics are staggering. In New Hampshire, obesity rates have nearly doubled in the last 15 years.  Almost two out of three adults in the State are overweight or obese; one out of four high school students are overweight or obese; one out of three third graders are overweight or obese.


According to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, adult obesity increases the risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, sleep apnea and depression. Children who are overweight are more likely to become obese later in life. Due to the increase in overweight and obesity rates, diseases rarely seen in children in the past are now more prominent including hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure and cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, glucose intolerance, sleep-associated breathing disorders, and non-alcoholic fatty liver diseases. In addition, children who are overweight or obese can develop a whole slew of social and psychological issues including increased suicide thoughts and attempts, an increased rate of anxiety disorder, and depression.


In addition, obesity has a real economic cost including health care costs and lost productivity. Nearly 10% of annual medical spending is obesity related.


One of New Hampshire’s more proactive initiatives in addressing the obesity issue is its HEAL Initiative – Healthy Eating Active Living. Municipal park and recreation professionals were at the table when the initiative was developed. HEAL’s recommendations for cities and towns include improving access to parks, playgrounds, and recreation facilities and improving infrastructure to support walking, bicycling, and other modes of active transportation. In both of these areas, New Hampshire’s park and recreation departments play pivotal roles.


Parks and recreation programs are important in the obesity battle for adults and children to become or stay active.


Imagine an 8 year old boy – he, like one-third of his peer group, is overweight or obese. On a recent trip to his pediatrician he was prescribed 30 minutes of physical activity daily. His school offers physical education only once a week and recess is not offered every day.  He has also joined the Lego club, which meets during recess. He loves video games but doesn’t like team sports. Luckily for him, the Parks and Recreation Department in his community offers the CATCH Kids Club daily after school. CATCH – Comprehensive Approach to Childhood Health – is a health education program designed for grades K-8 in community and recreation settings. The key components are nutrition (including snack preparation activities) and physical activity. At the program he is kept moving and learns about “go foods, slow foods and whoa foods”. He enjoys CATCH. By the time he starts fourth grade he is a physically fit, active 9 year old within the normal weight range for his height. In addition, his knowledge has helped the whole family to eat better and enjoy activities like cycling and hiking.


The Keene Parks and Recreation Department has been offering the CATCH Kids Club for more than 5 years as part of its after school program at the Keene Community Center.


The Tapply Thompson Community Center in Bristol began the Biggest Loser program in 2007, with a goal to educate adults on how to lose weight in healthy ways by teaching lifelong skills for nutrition, physical activity, fitness and healthy lifestyles. The program ran for five years, with approximately 300 people benefitting from this program. It has since been replaced by Shape-Up Newfound.


In all of these examples, it is easy to see that parks and recreation facilities and service are key community players in helping to solve the effects of the obesity epidemic in New Hampshire.


Almost twenty years ago, NRPA’s Benefits Approach sang the praises of parks and recreation, with a vision of universal acceptance of municipal parks and recreation as an essential service. The benefits are still endless. The important factor, however, is that parks and recreation services play an important role in creating and building strong New Hampshire communities. Defining something as an “essential” service depends on one’s interpretation. A municipality certainly can exist without parks and recreation, as it can without libraries, historical societies, and a myriad of other things that make strong, healthy, viable New Hampshire communities, but is it truly a community without these things? The power of parks and recreation is its ability to help make New Hampshire towns and cities great.



“The right of children to play, to sing and to dance; the right of youth to sport for sports’ sake; the right of men and women to use leisure in the pursuit of happiness in their own way, are basic to our American heritage.” – Harry S. Truman


Donna J. Kuethe is the Recreation Director for the Town of Moultonborough.  She may be contacted at 603.476-8868 or at

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