Access to Parks and Greenways

        The Tennessee Department of Health defines access to parks and greenways as the percentage of the population with adequate access to outdoor locations for physical activity. Individuals are determined to have adequate access to parks and greenways if they: reside in a census block within a half mile of a park, reside in an urban census block within one mile of a recreational facility, or reside in a rural census block within three miles of a recreational facility. In 2016, 71% of Tennesseans were considered to have adequate access to parks or greenways. The data for this measure comes from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.  

        Access to parks and greenways is integral to an individual’s ability to exercise outdoors and reduce stress through leisure time, the level of social interaction available to members of a community, and a neighborhood’s safe play areas. Studies have shown that physician-diagnosed anxiety and depression may be up to 33% higher in populations living in residential areas with fewer green spaces than in communities with more greenspaces. Access to parks and greenways significantly influences the mental and physical health status of a community by preventing obesity and improving community social cohesion.  

        Studies have shown that adequate access to parks and greenways offsets socioeconomic health disparities and can lower health inequalities among low-income households, an important factor when considering the health of an entire community and the inequities within it. In order to promote healthy behaviors, it is important to understand how the built environment can shape an individual’s ability to be active (think bike lanes, walkways, and other public outdoor spaces) and healthy. 

        Urban residents experience reduced access to open spaces when compared to suburban residents. Urban parks are more likely to be associated with safety challenges or overcrowding, presenting barriers to park utilization. Sparsely populated rural communities also experience reduced access to public parks, greenways, and community recreational facilities when compared to suburban populations.  

        Communities of color and low-income communities both experience reduced access to recreational facilities than higher income and/or white communities. This phenomenon is demonstrated by the fact that communities of color and low-income communities are more likely to report personal safety concerns and poorly maintained recreational facilities as barriers to park and recreational facility access than white communities.  

        Although children are often associated with parks, communities with a higher density of children actually experience reduced access to parks and greenways when compared to communities with a lower density of children. Finally, older individuals are more likely to cite fear of physical injury as a barrier to park and recreational facility usage.  

Vital Sign Actions Guide

The following are lists of intervention strategies that you, your health council, and other local stakeholders could use to address access to parks and greenways in your community.  


1. Community Garden 

Community gardens are known to create a multitude of benefits for a community, including access to nutritious foods, social cohesion, and time spent outdoors and in parks. A great way to increase time spent outdoors by individuals is to implement a community garden in a residential pocket park.


2. Expand Pocket Parks in Residential Neighborhoods 

A pocket park is a small outdoor space, usually no more than a quarter of an acre, most often located in an urban area surrounded by commercial buildings or houses on small lots with few places for people to gather, relax, or to enjoy the outdoors. This type of space can be used for community gatherings, organized physical activity, or individual leisure time. These mini-parks increase access to green space for families who live too far away from existing parks. 


3. Implement a Dog Park 

Dog parks, or designated off-leash areas, are shown to correlate with higher levels of dog-walking in adult dog owners, increasing their daily physical activity. By establishing a dog park in an existing or future park or greenway, dog owners are encouraged to socialize with other dog owners and engage in more physical activity through playing with and walking their dog. 


4. Install a Walking/Jogging Track 

Walking and jogging trails increase both the use of parks and the amount of physical activity that park-goers engage in during their visit. Ideally, tracks should be easily accessible to individuals of varying ability, clean and aesthetically appealing, and accommodating of other needs such as water fountains and trashcans in order to increase perception of park quality and community involvement.


5. Install or Maintain Fixed Play Grounds 

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Active Living Research shows that children are more likely to engage in physical activity for an extended amount of time when playgrounds are available and maintained. Simply adding permanent attractive signs or colorful markings to playgrounds can increase physical activity by 18 minutes on average. These improvements make the park or greenways appear to have higher quality infrastructure and more welcoming to community members. After building or improving a playground, a community “play day” is a great way to celebrate and advertise the new community play space. 


6. Install Play Fountains/Spash Pads 

Splash pads and play fountains provide a space for children to engage in physical activity during warmer summer months. Research shows that physical activity intensity is consistently lower during hot summer months. Water features offset the high temperatures, encouraging more intense outdoor physical activity. When addressing access to parks and greenways, it’s important to consider year-round visits and activities.  


7. Install Sports Facilities/Disk Golf Course 

Publicly available sports facilities such as basketball courts, baseball fields, tennis courts, and soccer fields provide a space for community members to engage in vigorous physical activity. These sports facilities also increase usage of parks. Similarly, a disk golf course is a creative, inexpensive way to increase physical activity and park usage in a community. This is a great way to utilize various geographical terrains that don’t allow for flat courts or fields and that may be neglected by park goers. 


8. Junior Rangers Program 

Tennessee State Parks and National Parks in Tennessee offer programming for children to get outdoors as Junior Rangers. Children ages six through 14 can participate in activities such as canoeing, hiking, track making and identification, map and compass navigation, and more in order to earn ranger badges for various skills. Many parks also offer a Junior Ranger Camp during the summer, for children of various ages. Counties without state or national parks can adapt this idea to be an outdoor learning initiative in schools and after school programs. 


9. Organized Physical Activity Event 

Supervised and organized activities are shown to increase the number of people who use parks or greenways by as much as 25%. These social activities encourage participants to engage in physical activity and increase the park-goers’ perception of safety and social cohesion in a community. Supervised activities should target various demographics and levels of physical ability. Some ideas include youth organized sports, a community race, yoga classes, “boot camp” classes, walking clubs, and more. 


10. Organized Social Event 

It’s important to also consider the mental health benefits of social events held in community green spaces especially for those whose ability to engage in physical activity is limited. Organized social events increase the perception of safety and community engagement in local parks. Examples of social events include “Art in the Park” and outdoor educational classes, among others. 


11. Park Stewardship Activities 

One way to increase involvement in local parks and greenways is by organizing stewardship activities such as a park cleanup day or a community build day. The National Recreation and Park Association supports this type of community organizing as a way to increase social cohesion amongst participants and improve existing parks at low costs. Some groups to engage may include faith-based organizations and churches, schools, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs, and more. 


12. Provide Portable Play Equipment for Children 

Research shows that when parks and playgrounds provide portable equipment (e.g. balls, jump ropes, Frisbees), along with supervised physical activities and fixed play equipment, “children were more likely to participate in moderate and vigorous physical activity than those in centers without such environments.” By providing portable play equipment, children are given more play options and encouraged to engage in longer, more intense physical activity. 


13. StoryWalk 

The StoryWalk Project and Storybook Trails are programs that involve installing pages of a children’s book along a path or trail for families or classes with young children to read. In addition to promoting literacy, and parental engagement around reading, Storybook Trails encourage families to connect with nature and engage in a healthy, outdoor activity. A story trail is a great opportunity to provide culturally appropriate texts in multiple languages for children of various backgrounds. Story trails can be installed in parks, at schools, along greenways, at children’s hospitals, in a mall, around a downtown square, or other public places. The Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation launched the Storybook Trail project along with Tennessee State Parks Conservancy and city parks. 


14. Universal Park Design 

Universal Design allows parks to be used by all people of all abilities. Universal Design differs from Accessible Design by building infrastructure that is fully usable by all individuals with a range of ability. Accessible design meets only the minimum requirements set by the American Disability Act, and can tend to segregate children with disabilities from those without. Existing and future parks should consider the needs and abilities of all residents when designing infrastructure and planning community activities. For example, play equipment should be nonspecific to ability, sidewalks and walking tracks should be level and wide enough to accommodate a walker or wheelchair, stairs should have handrails, and there should be ample seating and for rest during physical activity.


1. Access to Health Built Environment Grant (TDH) 

Purpose: The Tennessee Department of Health offers two grants through the Office of Primary Prevention to increase options for daily physical activity—the Access to Health through Healthy Active Built Environment grants. One round is not competitive and is distributed to all 95 counties, and the other round is competitive and application based.  These grants can be used for park improvement, playgrounds, trails, outdoor fitness equipment and other projects that encourage outdoor physical activity through the built environment.

Duration: 1 year (non-competitive); two years (competitive)

Amount: $20,000 per county (non-competitive); Up to $85,000 (competitive)


2. Appalachian Regional Commission 

Purpose: Grants and funding are awarded by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) focusing on economic opportunities, ready workforce, critical infrastructure, natural and cultural assets, and leadership and community capacity. Tennessee (Eastern Appalachian region) is among 12 other states that are eligible to receive funding from ARC. Specifically, ARC provides grant funding in order to “strengthen Appalachia’s community and economic development potential by leveraging the Region’s natural and cultural heritage assets.”

Duration: Varies 

Amount: Up to $4,000,000


3. Community Development Block Grant 

Purpose: The Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Entitlement Program provides annual grants on a formula basis to entitled cities and counties to develop viable urban communities by providing decent housing and a suitable living environment, and by expanding economic opportunities, principally for low- and moderate-income persons. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awards these grants to entitlement community grantees to carry out a wide range of community development activities directed toward revitalizing neighborhoods, economic development, and providing improved community facilities and services.

Duration: 1 to 3 years

Amount: Up to $1,500,000; Varies 


4. Community Foundations 

Purpose: Community Foundations offer small grants that focus on community-driven change in Tennessee. The Community Foundations in Tennessee include Appalachian Community Fund, The Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, Knox County Community Foundation, and East Tennessee Foundation. Most of these foundations consider healthy youth development as a focus area of grant funding.

Duration: Varies

Amount: Varies 


5. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation 

Purpose: The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation manages conservation programs that fund projects which sustain, restore, and enhance the nation's fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats. NFWF funding programs that target Tennessee wildlife include the Cumberland Plateau Stewardship Fund and Southeast Aquatics, among other programs that fund projects which aim to protect specific plant or animal species. 

Duration: Varies 

Amount: Varies 


6. National Park Service Program 

Purpose: The National Park Service provides grant funding to city and county governments through the State and Local Assistance Programs Division. The division distributes funding through three programs-- the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Urban Park and Recreation Recovery, and Federal Lands to Parks. These programs help local area acquire and preserve lands to use as public recreational areas. Examples of acquires lands include abandoned military bases and battlefield sites. 

Duration: Varies

Amount: Varies 


7. National Recreation and Park Association 

Purpose: The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) funds parks and recreation departments and affiliated nonprofits to increase access to and use of parks and green spaces. Recent NRPA grant funding examples include “10-Minute Walk Technical Assistance” and “Grants for Physical Activity Programs”.

Duration: Varies 

Amount: Varies 


8. Safe Route to Parks 

Purpose: Safe Routes to Parks is a program that provides grants for communities who wish to increase safe access to parks. This program aims to increase physical activity in communities across the U.S. while advancing racial and social equity. These grants focus on assessment, planning, implementation, and sustainability in order to increase pedestrian access to parks and greenways.  

Duration: 1 year 

Amount: $12,500 


9. Tennessee Arts Commission 

Purpose: The Tennessee Arts Commission supports community design through the Creative Placemaking Grant. Through placemaking, communities can reimagine the use of public spaces in order to encourage collaboration and shared values. Examples of public spaces that can maximize placemaking include parks, downtown squares, waterfronts, markets, and college campuses. This type of community design promotes healthy activity, creativity, commerce, and social interaction. 

Duration: 1 year 

Amount: $5,000- $8,000 or $10,000 (two + towns together) 


10. Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) 

Purpose: The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) offers funding through three Recreation Education Services Grants programs. These programs include the Local Parks and Recreation Fund (LPRF), the Recreational Trails Program (RTP), and the Tennessee Recreation Initiative Program (TRIP). The programs provide funding for the purchase of lands to be used as parks or greenways, trail construction and maintenance, and staffing or organization for parks and recreation delivery systems, respectively. TDEC also provides grant funding for the preservation of historical sites through the Tennessee Historical Commission. 

Duration: 1 year (LPRF & RTP); 3 years (TRIP)

Amount: $25,000 - $500,000 (LPRF); $20,000 - $200,000 (RTP); $50,000 (TRIP)


11. Tennessee Department of Tourist Development 

Purpose: The Tennessee Department of Tourist Development supports two grants that support the development of outdoor spaces for recreational use—the Waterways Accessibility for Tennessee Recreation Grant and the Tourism Enhancement Grant. 

Duration: Varies 

Amount: Varies 


12. Tennessee Project Diabetes 

Purpose: The Tennessee Department of Health administers Project Diabetes grants that focus on reducing the rate of Tennesseans who are overweight or obese. One goal of Project Diabetes is to encourage physical activity as an integral and routine part of life by enhancing the physical and built environment. Grants are administered in two categories, Category A and Category B. 

Duration: Up to 3 years (Cat. A); up to 2 years (Cat. B)

Amount: Up to $150,000 per year (Cat. A); up to $15,000 per year (Cat. B)


13. Transportation Alternatives Program (TDOT) 

Purpose: The Tennessee Department of Transportation awards grants annually to communities for projects that improve access and provide a better quality of life for Tennesseans by increasing access to alternate modes of transportation. Grants must be applied for through local planning organizations. Projects may include management of sidewalks, bike lanes, abandoned railways, scenic overlooks, and other activities to improve access. Additionally, the Tennessee Department of Transportation funds cities and counties that fall outside of an MPO planning boundary in order to develop community transportation plans for future transportation systems, land use, and growth management. 

Duration:  $250,000 - $1,000,000 (general); up to $125,000 (transportation planning)

Amount: 1 year 


1. First Day Hike 

America’s State Parks promotes First Day Hikes on New Year’s Day with free, guided hikes in state parks. Families, friends, and individuals can start their year off with a #ResolutionToHike and learning from knowledgeable guides. Counties without a State Park can partner with the local Parks and Recreation Department to organize a First Day Hike program in a public park or along a greenway. 


2. Great Outdoors Month 

June is the national Great Outdoors Month, a time when families are encouraged to #EscapeTheIndoors. Activities such as fishing, boating, camping, hiking and biking are promoted as family fun events during this campaign.


3. Healthy Parks, Healthy People App 

The Tennessee Department of Health the Healthy Parks, Healthy Person app which encourages Tennesseans to get outside and exercise. Participants earn points for spending time outdoors, which can in turn be used to redeem rewards provided by Tennessee State Parks. The app is designed to be used by people of all ages and abilities, so all Tennesseans get to participate. 


4. National Trails Day and National Public Lands Day 

The American Hiking Society promotes National Trails Day as a campaign to encourage people experience a local trail and celebrate the National Trails System Act. National Trails Day is held in June each year and provides a great opportunity for stewardship projects to improve local trail systems. Similarly, National Public Lands Day is organized by the National Environmental Education Foundation and provides an opportunity to organize stewardship events in local public lands and parks. 


5. Opt Outside 

Opt Outside is a popular campaign promotes by REI that encourages families to spend time outdoors on Black Friday instead of shopping. By choosing to #OptOutside, a person or family is making the decision to spend more time being physically active in nature and less time inside or in front of a screen. 


6. Park(ing) Day 

Tactical urbanism is a term used to describe the process of temporarily changing how a public space is used, to encourage more pedestrian-friendly and community-focused growth. One example of tactical urbanism is Park(ing) Day. Park(ing) Day is a one-day event that aims to call attention to the use of urban space, particularly metered parking spots. During this event, organizations can turn a parking spot into a public-use mini-park. These mini-parks can involve temporary plants, art exhibits, games, arts and crafts, food vendors, and lots of other creative installations.


7. Park Path App (Park Finder) 

The Park Path Finder App is operated by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). This app allows users to locate parks near them and parks with particular amenities that an individual may be searching for. 


8. Parks and Recreation Month 

The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) provides communities with resources and programming ideas for Park and Recreation Month, which is celebrated in July. See the link below for social media hashtags and posters to increase participation in Park and Recreation Month. 


1. Create a Strategic Plan for Parks and Greenways 

Creating or updating a city's strategic plan for parks and greenways is a great way to assess the local demographics of a community, what parks and greenways already exist, and what groups or areas lack adequate outdoor space. A strategic plan for a community should include experts and stakeholders from various fields (some ideas include the local Health Department, School Board, local MPO, Chamber of Commerce, the housing sector, parks and recreation, and more). Furthermore, public engagement is an integral part of the planning process to ensure that the people being served have a voice in the development of community assets.  


2. Ensure Proper Park Lighting 

Proper lighting in parks and greenways is shown to lead to an increase in the perception of the space’s safety, even if it is closed to the public after dark. This overall increased feeling of safety can lead to increased use of the existing park or greenway. Additionally, proper lighting allows for extended park hours during winter’s shorter days, increasing access for school-aged children and working adults.


3. Joint Use Agreements or Open Use Policies 

Schools, faith-based organizations, or any other community organization with a recreational area or playground can choose to implement a Joint Use Agreement or an Open Use Policy to allow the public to use their space without fear of legal liability. Tennessee laws state that local school boards and school officials may not be held liable in situations occurring on school property outside of school hours or events. Joint Use Agreements expand access to outdoor recreational space at little to no extra expenses. Creating more spaces for the public to engage in physical activity is a key component of increasing health equity in a community. 


4. Land Easements 

Land Easements are legal agreements between private land owners and a land trust, government agency, or other land conversation agency in which private land is protected from future developments and open to public use. The land owner retains the rights to sell or pass down the property, farm, hunt, or fish on the land, and built property on the land. Land Easements are a great way to increase public access to green space and protect natural spaces from commercial development.  


5. Zoning Policies to Increase Walkability and Connectivity 

Access to parks and greenways is increased when community members are willing and able to walk to a park from their homes, schools, or place of employment. Several factors can lead to safer, more walkable routes to parks including proper sidewalks and lighting, lower speed limits for adjacent traffic, shade to mediate warmer weather, and adequate pedestrian signage. These zoning policies increase access to green spaces particularly for residents without alternate modes of transportation. 


1. Prescribing Parks 

The national and State Parks Rx programs encourage providers to prescribe outdoor activity. In Tennessee, Park Rx pads, brochures, and other materials are available for free from the Healthy Parks Healthy Person Program. The national Park Rx program offers toolkits, reports and training webinars.


*State employees are prohibited from engaging in
political activity not directly a part of that person’s employment during any
period when the person should be conducting business of the state (Tenn. Code
Ann. § 2- 19-207). For further information on State Employee Political
Participation, please visit: 

This document is not a Department endorsement of legislative policy.