Image via Flickr
Stockton, Calif.–Parks are more than green patches of grass and picnic benches. They provide a safe space for physical activity, they help clean the air we breathe and they provide a gathering place for children to play and for neighbors to come together.
The opportunity for recreation and community cohesiveness is powerful for public safety. By giving our children a place to stay out of trouble and by adding more eyes on the street, parks help keep communities safe and connected. Our organization, Fathers & Families of San Joaquin (FFSJ), has seen the comprehensive benefits parks provide and has become a champion for parks in Stockton and throughout California.
Stockton stands to benefit from the power of parks. The city continues to struggle in the aftermath of the bankruptcy. City Hall cut 40 percent of its employees, slashing services like police, education, and parks and recreation programs. Crime and violence skyrocketed, making Stockton the 10th most dangerous city in the U.S. in 2015.
Fathers & Families of San Joaquin received a grant to study the link between neighborhoods and safety in Stockton. Youth from the San Joaquin County Juvenile Probation Camp Peterson, in partnership with Fathers & Families of San Joaquin and Data Co-Op, conducted a Youth Participatory Action Research project by conducting assessments and public opinion surveys in several Stockton parks, including McKinley Park and Eden Park. Through outreach and engagement with residents in Stockton’s poorest communities, it was clear that parks play an important role in neighborhood life.
Parks were once vibrant hubs of activity for residents. Our youth heard stories of a time when neighbors gathered together at places like McKinley Park, and kids spent the after school hours playing with friends.
Now community residents say it often feels too unsafe to spend time on the playground or to take evening walks. As parks in Stockton declined, they no longer served as focal points for community strength and resilience.
In order to transform parks and their city, residents told us they wanted to see more investment in green space and wanted their fair share of park amenities that other communities enjoy. The lack of city investment is especially problematic in low-income communities of color, where few recreational options are available. In Stockton, the lack of programs and maintenance led to a decline that turned these pockets of green into unsafe spaces.
Using this research, youth with Fathers & Families of San Joaquin decided to make parks the heart of Stockton’s communities once again. They renovated a neglected community center at McKinley Park, partnered with Building Trades to repave the basketball and handball courts, fixed ruts in the park, painted over graffiti, and developed a plan to offer programs at the center.
Now, the park is thriving and there are programs being offered at the McKinley Park Community Center through an FFSJ initiative called Healing the Hood that focuses on healing childhood, parenthood, and neighborhoods. The revitalized space now houses youth groups, boxing clubs, judo teams, resource fairs, handball tournaments and Aztec dancing groups. The youth themselves discovered a new passion in revitalizing green spaces, bringing renewed hope to their neighborhoods and taking back their public spaces.
These findings confirm what we have long known: parks are critical community resources. As part of the statewide Parks Now coalition, FFSJ is joining efforts to ensure that every Californian has access to quality parks. By raising awareness about the importance of parks and supporting community-driven efforts to bring nature to people, we hope to bring equity-driven solutions to areas that need them the most.
In its rebuilding process, Stockton needs to place parks at the top of the list of revitalization priorities. Parks bring communities together, which is one of the most powerful public safety tools that exist. Every Stockton resident deserves a quality park to play and build community.
Fathers & Families of San Joaquin (FFSJ) is a progressive, solutions orientated organization that works to address the varying needs of men, women, youth, their families and the community. By providing socially relevant and culturally-relevant services, FFSJ develops local leadership while unifying the efforts of existing groups. FFSJ addresses critical problems such as institutional inequity, fatherless homes, wide spread poverty, employment disparities, inadequate access to public health services, community re-entry and youth on youth violence. To learn more about FFSJ, visit their site here.