Keeping public parks safe will keep us healthy

Keeping public parks safe will keep us healthy

To the editor:

Last month, I tended a small pocket park in the heart of Old Town and — for the first time — found a syringe among the cigarette butts. This park is poorly lit at night, the azaleas are diseased and, were it not for some attention, this place would be covered in weedy vines.

This park has been a collective effort of the neighborhood florist, the city and myself. After three years, it’s finally a space that people kindly remark on and relax in.

But the incident of the syringe brought me back to an appeal I heard in the spring from other residents about another park. They described it as being overrun by drug dealers and users — for lack of city attention.

Despite complaints to the city, basic maintenance and attention from the police never materialized. It took a visit to city council — and the public embarrassment of officials — to ensure lighting and more frequent police patrols.

The question is: Why did it have to go this far to ensure a minimum level of public safety in one of Alexandria’s public parks? Public parks should not be ignored to the point where they become havens for the drug trade.

Making the case for the health benefits stemming from easy public access to well-maintained, safe and pleasant parks has become a tedious exercise. A quick web search turns up thousands of well-documented supporting studies and cases. Alexandria’s planning director, who holds a degree in landscape design, knows this quite well.

It seems maintaining an infrastructure of public parks for all residents is something that’s no longer important to city officials. In Germany, public parks are studied to determine what creates a safe, relaxing and healthful place. Their answer, which is backed by several studies, is that park improvements — such as good lighting, cutbacks of low-growing plants to eliminate hiding places, pruned trees for spreading natural light and well-kept pathways — combine to increase health and safety benefits for all.

This style of hands-off city management in Alexandria is growing to the point where developers are beginning to talk aloud about how deficient City Hall is in providing what’s best for residents. Outstanding civic leaders do not declare that they act in the best interest of the city; rather it’s in the best interest of the people they serve.

Public parks in dense, urban areas are not entertainment venues. For that, we have National Harbor, King’s Dominion and the Kennedy Center. How about more good public policy and less laissez-faire city management so that residents benefit from a safe, clean and attractive public park infrastructure, which they already own and annually fund?
– Kathryn Papp

(Photo/File Photo)