Cortez City Park, Parque de Vida, Centennial Park, Montezuma Park and the Cortez Recreation Center share a common bond.
All large city parks and municipal green spaces in Cortez sit on the north side of Main Street, or U.S. Highway 160, leaving south side residents with fewer no-cost recreation opportunities than their northern counterparts.
“There really isn’t a major park on the south side of town, and I think it’s unrealistic to expect the south side residents to be driving to the north side to use it,” Cortez Parks and Recreation Director Dean Palmquist said.
Cortez has a $4 million plan to change that.
Palmquist said the yet-to-be-named, 11-acre neighborhood park planned at the location of the old Montezuma-Cortez High School, firmly on the south side, will bring equity to Cortez and help balance the locations of city parks. It is planned to be constructed in three phases over the next six years.
“By putting a park on the south side, you’ve increased the frequency of those people using park amenities,” Palmquist said.
Cortez lags the national average for the percentage of residents who live within a 10-minute walk — or about a half-mile without significant barriers — of a park, according to an analysis of the city by the California-based nonprofit Trust for Public Lands.
In Cortez, 3,772 people, about 43 percent, live near a park, compared with 4,908 people who do not, according to TPL. That figure places Cortez 11 percentage points behind the national average of 54 percent. Among youths, the gap widens by two percentage points: 55 percent of youth nationwide live near a park compared with 42 percent of youths in Cortez.
A heat map produced by TPL shows the parts of town most in need of a park. Much of the south side, especially land south of Fourth Street, is blocked out in red, showing a “very high” need for parks, according to TPL.
Parks, health and physical activity
Statewide data shows Coloradans who report low access to parks are less likely to meet physical activity guidelines, according to Cate Townley, build environment specialist for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“Of course, it’s going to be up to people to choose whether or not to be active, but by having a park nearby ,it gives them more of that opportunity,” Townley said.
A host of peer-reviewed research generally associates better health outcomes with proximity, number and size of parks in a given area.
A 2014 study in The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found “numerous significant associations” between the number of parks and amount of park space within 1 mile with higher levels of park use and park-based physical activity.
A study of New York City adults published in 2015 in Preventive Medicine found that large or small park spaces in residential ZIP codes were associated with lower body mass index, a measurement calculated from height and weight that gauges obesity.
There is also a connection between parks and mental health.
A 2014 study in The Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics found that mental health is “significantly related to residential distance from parks.”
“What we’ve been able to see is that typically parks can help promote social connections, and that’s something that is very valuable for your mental well-being and being connected to your community,” Townley said.
Cortez bucks trendDespite evidence of associations between parks and better health outcomes, data from the CDPHE Community Health Equity Map suggest the opposite trend in Cortez.
Compared with the north side, Cortez residents who live south of Main Street live longer, have lower disability rates, fewer diabetes hospitalizations, fewer asthma hospitalizations, fewer heart disease deaths, fewer babies born with low birth weight and fewer teen pregnancies.
According to data from CDPHE, the suicide mortality rate is the only health metric that is worse on the south side.
South of Main Street, 33.5 people out of 100,000 die by suicide, compared with 31.7 out of 100,000 on the north side. Both figures are well above the statewide average of 19.6 per 100,000 people.
While south side residents are generally healthier than north side residents, they are also poorer, more diverse and have a higher percentage of people in the workforce. Census data from 2013 to 2017 show 26.1 percent of south side residents live below the poverty line, compared 17.7 percent living in poverty below on the north side.
Earlier data show an even bigger gap. Census estimates from 2012 to 2016 found 9.7 percent of north side residents live in poverty compared with 31.5 percent south of Main Street, or 3.2 times as much poverty on the south side.
Sarah Hernandez, director of policy for the CDPHE Office of Health Equity, said the statistics illustrate an important point. When talking about health outcomes, she said, there’s a whole host of factors that go into predicting a person’s health.
While research suggests that more parks are associated with healthier people, reality is more complicated.
“It’s not the full story,” Hernandez said. “There might be a correlation, but it’s not a causal connection.”
She said research suggests 80 percent of health is determined by factors outside of health care, such as where we live, where we go to school, where we work. That’s part of the reason why the Colorado Legislature created the CDPHE Office Health Equity in 2007.
Equality, Hernandez said, is about treating everyone the same without considering their starting place. Equity, on the other hand, takes into account historic injustices and present day inequities like poverty and race.
From a policy perspective, Hernandez said health equity means engaging in practices that attempt to level the playing field for everyone and create opportunities for all Coloradans to be healthy.
“It could mean that a community that has been considered disadvantaged actually gets more parks and rec access to try to compensate for some of the other factors at play, such as having a high poverty status,” Hernandez said.
Designed for the south sideHernandez said equity is all about creating a “tailored platform for success.” According to Palmquist, that’s exactly how the city planned and mapped out the incoming south side neighborhood park.
“That’s why I call this a neighborhood park, not a community park, because it really is being built for the folks on the south side of town,” Palmquist said.
The city conducted several public information meetings on the south side, and Palmquist said staff put more emphasis on comments from residents within four blocks of the park site.
The approximately 25 amenities listed in the park budget include features that Townley, the CDPHE built environment specialist, said tend to encourage more physical participation at parks. She said research shows shade, inclusive features for all ages and an outer walking path are important.
“If people know what the distance is of that walking path, that helps get people moving more,” Townley said.
The 11-acre Cortez park will include a $300,000 concrete outer walking path, a heavily shaded tree bosque area with lawn games and a $422,000 inclusive playground. Other features include sports fields, a skate park, two BMX bike parks, a challenge course, a misting wall and a nature-inspired playground.
Palmquist said all city parks comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, but the south side park will go beyond the legal requirements. He is most excited about the two playgrounds, especially the inclusive playground designed for children of all abilities.
“It’s not based on meeting our laws or requirements, it’s about meeting a need,” Palmquist said. “To some degree, we should be better than what’s required by law. I’ve always felt that.”
The cost of equityThe park itself is projected to cost $3.75 million. Before that can begin, however, the city will extend South Elm Street south through the former location of Montezuma-Cortez High School at a cost of about $300,000. Montezuma County Housing Authority plans to build affordable housing on the east side of the Elm Street extension.
On Wednesday, Great Outdoors Colorado announced its decision to award a $350,000 Local Parks and Outdoor Recreation grant for the Cortez park. Palmquist said the city also has applied for a $500,000 Colorado Department of Local Affairs grant and a $1 million Colorado Health Foundation grant. Cortez will also use some of the approximately $87,000 it receives annually from the Colorado Conservation Trust Fund for the park.
Receiving more than $1.5 million in outside funding is “very conceivable.”
By stretching the project over six years, Palmquist said there will be less pressure on the city to dip into the general fund and a greater possibility of multiple grants from state agencies and foundations. But a longer construction timeline could also mean higher costs, as construction prices increase over time.
Palmquist said the city accounted for construction escalation by having options on what grade of equipment to purchase, having flexibility over the amount of equipment in the park and budgeting $100,000 for contingency.
Several years from now, Palmquist said he hopes kids on the south side will have opportunities that are more stimulating and than sitting inside and playing video games.
“I think it’s going to be a great springboard to encourage more folks to be outdoors at a young age,” Palmquist said.