Safe Routes to Parks as a Strategy to Create Welcoming and Inclusive Communities for Young People

A couple of weekends ago, I took my son out for a special mom-and-son breakfast. As is typical of a four-year-old, he is on his millionth question of the day when he asks the waiter what his name is. Our waiter responds, “My name is Edgar.” I look at my son and add, “Hey, his name starts with the letter ‘E,’ just like your name.” Immediately, my son breaks out singing, “In some ways we are different, but in so many ways, we are the same!” a song from the PBS kids’ show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. It was a tender moment, and I realize that even at this young age, my son has started to form his sense of identity in relation to others. Aside from having a cool red trolley, this Mr. Rogers-inspired neighborhood where kids can embrace their unique selves in every way and still feel like they belong seems a bit utopian, yet, I want that for not just my kid, but all kids and young people.

While I want to relish this moment of innocence, the reality is that this lesson will evolve for him as he starts to see that who we are and how we identify can be used against us. Also, how we can easily follow the crowd, diminishing others to make ourselves feel big. As someone who works to support healthier communities, for me, this moment sparks the aspiration for inclusive and welcoming streets where young people can be fully themselves and can experience the joy and freedom to move through their neighborhoods safely and comfortably. In this way, pushing my imagination to extend beyond just the physical infrastructure that we typically think of in creating Safe Routes to School, to parks, and throughout our communities.   

In communities across the country, school is in full swing, streets are active with kids walking and biking, and parks are alive with seasonal activity. Meanwhile, fall is also marked by National Bullying Prevention Month in October. It seems like more than ever, bullying is a pressing social issue when we consider that similar power dynamics at play in peer-to-peer bullying also underlie hateful and violent acts that are ever present in our news feeds. In 2016, Safe Routes Partnership published this blog post on the role of Safe Routes to School in protecting kids from harassment and bullying along with several related resources on the topic. Despite the passage of time, the message is ever more relevant, and we know that bullying is not just confined to school buildings.

Parks, like schools, are part of the community fabric. Parks are places where youth of all ages and diverse backgrounds gather whether through unstructured play or planned programs and like with Safe Routes to School, we should work to extend what we may typically think of as Safe Routes to Parks and consider how bullying and harassment can hinder the way youth can use and access parks. Public health experts define bullying explicitly as youth violence that has a lasting traumatic impact on kids into adulthood with youth of color, youth with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ youth more likely to be victims of bullying.[1] As a community safety issue, bullying is a barrier to youth walking and rolling in their neighborhoods.[2] [3] While we can become better-equipped adults to address specific interpersonal instances of bullying and harassment, we also know that when we are able to break down silos in our work, cultivate community partnerships, and work towards centering and supporting youth, we are actually making communities stronger and more resistant to youth violence like bullying.[4] This can take shape by engaging youth as community experts when we plan, assess, and implement Safe Routes to Parks.  Centering youth experiences in engagement efforts can illuminate social dynamics that may not be visible to adults. Looking at youth as experts also opens up the possibilities to meaningfully engage, and create opportunities for inclusive programs and activities where youth can lead, grow, and belong.

One example of how to do this in practice that I’ve been inspired by is from Together for Brothers in Albuquerque, New Mexico whose mission is to engage the leadership of young men of color, ages 12-24 years old. Their work hits on various points of connection: creating inclusive spaces where young men of color grow as community leaders, working at the grassroots level to engage with communities that have experienced disinvestment, and working alongside a diversity of groups and partners to advocate for policy changes. You can check out their work on transit equity here, and get inspired by their youth-focused health impact assessment toolkit.

While the friendly red trolley and idyllic friendships in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood may be a pipe dream, we can challenge ourselves to consider how we can do better to create inclusive spaces that support the joyful experience that walking or rolling to school, the local park or the community center should be for our kids and young people.

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[2] Cosma, I., Kukaswadia, A., Janssen, I., Craig, W., and Pickett, W. (2015). Active transportation and bullying in Canadian schoolchildren: a cross-sectional study. BMC Public Health, 15(99),

[4] David-Ferdon, C., Vivolo-Kantor, A. M., Dahlberg, L. L., Marshall, K. J., Rainford, N. & Hall, J. E. (2016). A Comprehensive Technical Package for the Prevention of Youth Violence and Associated Risk Behaviors. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,