County Commissioners shouldn’t forget importance of parks

 Bill Graham

Bill Graham

Many times I’ve stepped into a park and felt, this a good place, I feel good to be here. It’s always nice to have affirmation, and lately I’ve been getting that from reading about the health benefits about contact with nature. Parks are happy places. Kids play soccer in them. Young couples get married against green backdrops. Graduating high school seniors hold celebrations in a place that has plentiful parking, restrooms and scenery. Many family reunions have shared fried chicken, potato salad and pie beneath a park gazebo.

But now thanks to science we learn there is more — health benefits. Scientists are starting to measure human response to nature in comparative studies. They found, on average, benefits such as lower blood pressure, reduced heart rate, increase energy levels and quicker recovery from illness or surgeries. Mental and physical health can be improved with contact to nature, such as reduced anxiety and stress.

This is of interest in Platte County because the county’s parks and recreation program is in relative infancy compared to what is offered in other counties in the Kansas City metro area. The county had almost no parks when a Republican-led Platte County Commission began asking the public what they wanted in the late 1990s. A series of public meetings, surveys and planning sessions led voters to approve in 2000 a half-cent sales tax for parks, recreation and stormwater projects. Voters renewed the tax in 2009. It is set to expire in 2020.

With the money, the county began and completed significant sections of an award-winning trails system. One that is in partnership with cities and part of a metro-wide trails plan. Community centers were developed in partnership with the YMCA. The county acquired parks, built ball fields and made improvements to acquisitions. As important, the county shared sales tax money with cities for parks and stormwater improvements at a very local level.

As the county’s official website states: “Platte County is one of the fastest growing areas in the metropolitan Kansas City region.”

Current county commissioners have stated they are uncertain what type of parks sales tax, if any, they will put on a ballot before the current tax sunsets in 2020. The parks have been put on a maintenance basis. Key personnel that helped start the department have left. The planning and zoning director was placed in charge of parks, too.

Meanwhile, commissioners have stated they want new, dedicated funding for law enforcement. One idea is a half-cent sales tax, possibly on a ballot in the spring of 2019. Needed jail space and office space for law enforcement authorities are among the reasons cited. County officials are viewing various options.

I’m all for law enforcement as well as safe and humane jails. If they made me king, there would be more highway patrol troopers and sheriff’s deputies on the highway to slow down the reckless and speedy drivers that make commuting stressful.

But, I like parks and preserved green space, too, and so have the majority of voters, twice. Healthy, growing, park systems have been a key part of the infrastructure that spawned growth in Johnson County, Kan., along with their schools and streets. The somewhat rural feel of Platte County is what has attracted many residents. Parks and greenways are a way to preserve that feel despite growth.

The health issue is not to be ignored, either. Humans existed close to nature for millions of years. Only recently have we walled ourselves off. Scientists are finding some connections with nature are still important and beneficial and that goes triple for children.

Obviously the person who jogs on a county trail five days a week is going to get more health benefits than the person who simply drives through to see some autumn color on the trees. Ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, August heat and February cold make a good case that we need not return to the constant contact with nature that our ancestors endured.

But even small doses of nature can help a person mentally and physically, scientists say. Hopefully not a very high percentage of us visit jails, yet almost all of us visit parks. We’re glad to know they are there even if a busy life delays us in returning to them.

Parks need not take a back seat in priorities to the other important services government provides for its citizenry.