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The Power of a Park

Profile of a Change Leader: Barbara Tulipane

In August I attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony of Marvin Gaye Park in NorthEast Washington, DC. Since I first moved to DC in the late 80s this park has been known as "Needle Park," a haven for drug dealers and users. It was dangerous and so filthy with needles, trash, and junked cars that only hoodlums would inhabit it.  But, all that appears to have changed, with dramatic progress in 9 short months. Barbara Tulipane, CEO of the National Recreation and Parks Association went looking for a park to transform in DC so she could study its effects. Needle Park was perfect and a kickstart transformation of Marvin Gaye Park was born.

"I want to know the power of a park, " says Barbara. "I am going to find and fund the research necessary to understand how parks improve people's health, how they help communities and children, what their trees and green space do for the environment, the correlation with decreases in crime, and how they help with stress. If it means I have to single-handedly coordinate local and federal agencies and work hand-in-hand with university research teams, so be it."

Pulling together a coalition that included Washington Parks and People (WPP), the Washington Area Metro Transit Authority, the DC government, Surface America, and Playworld Systems playground equipment provider, Barbara set her sites on full-scale transformation. The ceremony I attended took place in a beautifully clean park with a new playground populated with laughing kids, a fully functioning community center, a produce market, and plenty of grass roots organizers along with many of the women who are the elders of the community. 

"I am not under the illusion that a park is created by cleaning it up and installing playground equipment, " Barbara says. "You can't just create an instant park without community support. The community needs to have input or there is no ownership.  WPP is very close to the people. They met regularly with the people. They have the trust factor, on-the-ground people with community results.  As a result we have been able to generate a good deal of ownership. But, now comes the hard part. We want to study what happens next." Working together with George Mason University and WPP, NRPA is sponsoring a study to document how this playground and park improve the lives and health of children and adults in its surrounding communities. 

"Ultimately, I want to make it easy for people to put their money where it can have the greatest impact. That is why we are partnering with universities to conduct five studies this year: We will be learning about the impact parks have on:

  • Stress and crime
  • Youth development
  • Climate change through urban forestry
  • Physical health, including the role of play
  • The economy, through the impact and value parks provide to communities and the nation

She adds, "There is a lot of data out there. But, to date no one has brought it together. Each of the universities we are working with will do a literature review, locating everything that exists on these topics. Then they will document it so we can say, "Here is what we know." Based on these five studies we will identify the gaps. These gaps will be where we focus our efforts in the next stage - this will be the original research we will carry out. It will make clear exactly what the impact of parks is on communities.

Barbara is tough.  When she was giving us the tour of the Community Center a fight almost broke out among five older teens. "Hey, boys. Not today... not today!" she said, as she moved in close to look them in the eye and put things right. Things calmed down in short order.  One gets the feeling that she draws on this same toughness in the face of confusion and adversity when it comes to working with bureaucrats, politicians, and thorny problems. Her results have begun to speak for themselves. Visit Marvin Gaye Park and see.