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  • Getting Started With Collective Impact

    I want to share one example of a process we have used to strengthen Healthy Parks, Healthy People practice in our region. The model is called “collective impact” and it is gaining traction around the country. We first heard about collective impact in Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) and have been implementing it ever since.

    Healthy Parks, Healthy People (HPHP) doesn’t refer to any one program. Originally a messaging campaign adopted by Parks Victoria in Australia, HPHP serves as an umbrella for any and all activities that draw a connection between public lands and human health.

    For the past several years, parks all over the globe have been working to put this concept into practice, figuring out what it means by reaching out to unfamiliar partners and testing new programs and practices. Here in the Bay Area, we saw this happening to varying degrees of success. There was a fair amount of friendly competition as different agencies were tried to solve different pieces of the HPHP puzzle. Here at the Institute, we thought creating a more formalized community of practice could create a rising tide to lift all boats. But more than just sharing information with each other, we believed there may be some things we could only achieve if we tackled them together—an elephant in the room we might only move if we each put a hand on it.

    Beginning in June 2012, we launched a series of monthly meetings that were very carefully crafted to help all park and public land agencies in the Bay Area to realize a common health agenda. Participants spanned parks and public lands, public health, private healthcare, and community advocacy groups.

    Get Others Excited

    Our first meeting was an invitation to play in the kiddie pool, giving our participants an opportunity to see if this kind of collaborative work was for them. We asked participants to think about areas in their HPHP practice where they were struggling to make traction on their own as a single organization. We shared those—which ranged from addressing transportation needs to using the right language to communicate with local communities—and then broke into groups to tease out what some collaborative solutions in those areas might look like. At our meeting’s close, we invited folks to continue the conversation by joining our series of monthly strategy meetings and craft an HPHP agenda that would move our entire region forward. Of the 50+ participants in this meeting, about 12 organizations committed to meeting monthly with us to create the initiative from scratch.

    Define a Clear Target

    At the next session with this committed leadership team, we mapped out all of our current activities and identified gaps. We started to see that we weren’t sure if our HPHP activities were reaching those communities that could benefit the most from healthy activities in our parks. And to be honest, we didn’t know those communities very well. We also recognized that, so far, our new HPHP regional collaboration had mostly attracted interested park actors but not as many health or community leaders. We guessed that we might not yet be attracting the right health stakeholders because we didn’t have something really concrete to offer yet from the park side and took that into account as we proposed activities we might take on together.

    At our third session, we tried to more concretely articulate our purpose statement in coming together. We recognized that we could not take on all HPHP principles at once, so we chose a defined target. There is evidence that park prescriptions most benefit communities of low income and traditionally low access to parks. These are often also communities with the most health disparity and at the highest risk of chronic health problems. We decided that, to really make an impact with HPHP, we were going to prioritize our activities to serve those communities with high health risk first.

    Start Something Tangible

    With this target now in place, we had a clear outcome to strategize toward: increase the wellbeing of high health need communities through regular use and enjoyment of our parks. This statement, though simple, clarified our audience (high health needs first) and the type of behavior change we were aiming for (prioritize enjoyment rather than rigorous activity; regular use rather than one-off or semi-annual events).

    We debated several proposals for “first step, low-hanging fruit” activities we could take on together. We judged them against a set of criteria we created to help us stick close to our target. After much brainstorm and debate, we agreed that the best first step we could take was to commit to offering consistent, culturally relevant programing designed for first-time park users that health care providers could prescribe just as easily as a drug you could pick up at Walgreens. We thought, how incredible would it be for this to take place in every park and open space in the Bay Area at a time that works for residents and is consistent? The Director of Maternal and Child Health at the San Francisco Department of Public Health agreed that this targeted programming would be a huge offering to the healthcare and public health community in our region. This became our agenda for 2013.

    The Power of Collective Impact

    Our “warm-welcome” HPHP park programming now takes place the first Saturday of every month in over 23 park sites around the Bay Area with over thirty agencies and organizations on board. Some things are standardized, like the way we measure participation and program outcomes, but in many ways the programming itself is varied, as well as the recruitment strategy, so we are able to compare different approaches in different communities, evaluate and improve what we are doing.

    Just to tease out the timeline: within two months we were committed to a target—the change or outcome we were trying to seek together. Within about four months we had committed to an agenda for action and a timeline. And after twelve months we are moving full steam ahead, practicing and measuring our progress. This group of over twenty park agencies and a dozen health and community supporters decided that it wanted to create an MOU that would hold us accountable to this agenda through 2015. All of this was driven by the members of the collaborative; as the facilitative leaders, we committed to holding the process and asking the right questions at the right times.

    Friends and Allies

    If you are looking to create a collective impact collaboration for your social issue or cause, know that you’ve got allies behind you. Click here for a summary of different programs we modeled our own effort on. While it may not be exactly clear which “low-hanging fruit” your community will take on right away, we are confident that you can get started with only the resources you have at hand. Once you share a commitment to improvement with the right stakeholders and have set a few ways you plan to measure your success and hold yourselves accountable, taking meaningful action comes easily.

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  • Climate Action: Who Will Lead?

    Who can lead the way on climate change? Many years ago, I thought the solutions might come from the top, and that politicians or diplomats had the answers. Now, I believe progress can come locally and that we all have a role to play. I take heart from the multitude of local and regional initiatives that have blossomed in recent years. Regional and local governments, individual cities and states, as well as neighborhoods, communities, and schools, are all leading bottom-up movements for change. There are also many nonprofit organizations, think tanks, companies, and entrepreneurs who are genuinely and seriously engaged. We can feel inspired by such energy, and should be finding ways to support and scale up such activities.

    The Institute at the Golden Gate is supporting this movement with a program of our own. Our initiative is focused on using parks to engage the public on climate change. In our latest report published in May 2013, we identified examples of innovative, effective, and powerful educational programs in 13 parks around the world. During the course of our research, we identified many more parks where the public were being informed about climate change in a compelling, empowering way.

    Parks are on the front line of climate change. Park rangers and other staff members are a trusted and respected source of information. What better place could there be for the public to be informed and inspired on this critical issue? While some visitors are already learning from our parks, an even larger number could benefit. With 283 million visitors to U.S. national parks alone, we believe there’s an opportunity to scale up and increase the impact.

    To read my full article published recently in the Global Institute of Sustainability's Thought Leader series, please visit:

    Chris Spence
    Director, Institute at the Golden Gate

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  • Since 2009, the Institute at the Golden Gate has been catalyzing partnership opportunities into action and helping to make the idea of Healthy Parks, Healthy People mainstream. To this point, the Institute has built a national movement by telling the stories of successful "park prescriptions" programs around the country and inspiring leaders in the parks and health fields to take up the charge.

    Over the last year we have begun a partnership with the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and the National Recreation and Park Association to compare data from park prescription pilots around the country. Together we have reached out to over two dozen experts and those already implementing park prescriptions, in order help to set national standards for programming. These experts and implementers will gather for an in-person convening in October 2013 to set the agenda and vision for park prescriptions moving forward. We hope this will further solidify Healthy Parks, Healthy People as a policy practice, and provide the evidence and rigor it needs to survive beyond any one administration or individual champion.

    The Institute is committed to supporting a growing network of medical practitioners, insurance providers, parks and federal lands, and the communities they serve to establish and share best practices to connect healthcare and park resources. We look forward to reporting back in mid-October to share next steps on how park prescriptions programs will be improved and increased around the country in the coming years.

    See you in the parks!

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  • The Institute's starting point is our belief that parks and public lands can play a critical role in tackling many of society’s biggest social and environmental challenges. Working closely with partner organizations, we identify unique opportunities to bring about change locally, regionally, and nationally.

    From Local to National

    Since the Institute was established in 2008, we have developed a model for changing systems locally, regionally, and nationally. Our starting point is usually a specific success or approach we feel could be replicated elsewhere and taken to scale. For instance, in the realm of food policy, we were inspired by local examples in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area of cafés serving healthy, delicious, and sustainably-grown food in parks. A few years ago, examples like Muir Woods Cafe were rare in national parks, which often had a reputation for serving food that failed to match the awe-inspiring vistas and other sensory pleasures visitors come to parks to experience. The idea that the mission and values of parks could be embodied in all aspects of the visitor experience—including food service—resonated with us.

    Inspired by local efforts to innovate for a better food experience, the Institute researched and published two reports examining how all parks could start to serve food that stands up to a spectacular park experience while also supporting a conservation mission. With the Institute’s support, the U.S. National Park Service adopted standards and guidelines that will affect the nutrition as well as the sustainability of tens of millions of meals served across all of America’s national parks. With these standards in place, NPS now leads the way for other large food service operators in other sectors such as museums, hospitals, schools, and stadiums, and is sharing its expertise across the country.

    Partnerships and Pilot Testing

    The Institute is fortunate to work with some remarkable collaborators in California, nationally, and internationally. In San Francisco, we draw on the expertise and connections of our parent organization, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and our partner, the National Park Service. In fact, partnerships are at the heart of everything we do. We believe that collaboration is the key to scaling up good policy and practice.

    While we have the support of innovative partners in the Bay Area and are often inspired by their ideas and leadership, we actively seek out innovation wherever it can be found. For instance, one of the most original park responses to a larger societal problem first appeared in Australia. Several years ago, Parks Victoria developed a new concept called Healthy Parks, Healthy People. The idea was to make parks and outdoor spaces an active part of the movement towards preventive health care. The Institute at the Golden Gate and other allies in regional and national parks helped bring the idea back to the U.S.

    The next stage was to test the Healthy Parks, Healthy People concept to prove that it could work in practice. Locally, the Institute has been working extensively with land management and health agencies in the Bay Area to test the concept rigorously. In San Francisco, we have worked with our city parks and health officials to pilot the idea that doctors should be prescribing nature and outdoor activities to patients. Across the wider Bay Area region, we are working with 30 organizations to help roll out Healthy Parks, Healthy People programs across nine counties. We are also working with experts nationally and internationally to help identify best practice and how we might bring it to scale.

    A Model for Change

    While every challenge requires a different solution, the Institute's approach often involves several tried-and-tested steps. These include painstaking research, publishing case studies and roadmaps, convening key stakeholders, testing ideas on the ground, and finally, influencing decision makers.

    One example of this approach is our work on climate change education. In 2012, the Institute identified another area where our distinctive approach and networks could allow us to have an outsize impact: climate change. Parks are often on the frontline of climate change impacts. The National Park Service and many other park agencies both in the U.S. and internationally are taking climate change seriously, planning adaptation strategies and responses. Some park superintendents are also using this as an opportunity to engage the public on this critical issue. However, such examples are far from universal. Hundreds of millions of people visit parks and protected areas around the globe. Many are not educated or informed about climate change by their visit to the park.

    The Institute views this as a huge missed opportunity to communicate effectively with a massive audience about the impacts of climate change. There is a clear gap in existing climate communications and obvious benefits if this gap could be filled.

    Following the approach taken successfully in our food and health programs, our work on climate education focused in its first stage on taking stock of current activities: Who is currently educating the public about climate change in a park context? How are they educating them and with what success? The results of this research were published in May 2013 (see our climate page for more).

    The next stage will be to start a dialogue among key stakeholders to identify best practices from among the many different methods currently employed and identify opportunities to spread good practice. We will hold a major conference in the Bay Area in November 2013: a high-level, cross-sector event to identify new models and methods for using parks as an important educational tool. Finally, the Institute will take these lessons to decision makers regionally, nationally, and internationally with a view to moving policy forward.

    In order to truly effect change, we believe every good policy must become a widely-adopted, common practice. To ensure that the best ideas across our programs stand the test of time, our work is complemented, as needed, by local pilot testing of identified “best practice” to prove beyond all doubt that the policies are effective, replicable and scalable. As our climate program matures, you can expect to see local pilots, communities of practice, and regional collaborations emerge to stand alongside our existing food and health demonstration projects.

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  • National Food Changes Have Roots in Bay Area

    This summer the National Park Service (NPS) announced its commitment to provide healthy, nutritious food at every national park in the country. NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis, joined by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and White House Senior Policy Advisor on Nutrition Sam Kass, issued new healthy food standards and sustainability guidelines for 250 food and beverage operations across the nation, reaching over 23 million meals served in parks annually. 

    This exciting Healthy & Sustainable Food Program was shaped and influenced by the work of the Institute at the Golden Gate’s Food for the Parks initiative. It’s also part of the international Healthy Parks, Healthy People movement that promotes the health and wellbeing of people and the environmental sustainability of our planet.

    Here in the Bay Area, our parks have led the way in prioritizing the availability of local, organic, and healthy foods for visitors. Muir Woods Café was the first park concession to integrate healthy and sustainable food standards into its operations, and continues to receive local and national recognition for its healthy and delicious menu items. Through local partnerships and sustainable food service practices, the food served in our parks directly helps to reduce environmental impacts and contributes to our local economy. 

    Explore the healthy, sustainable and delicious food offered in the Golden Gate National Parks. Visit Muir Woods and taste the signature grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup—or enjoy the seasonal sandwiches and salads available at the Beach Hut and Warming Hut by the Golden Gate Bridge.

    To learn more about Food for the Parks and how parks are pioneering innovative and sustainable food practices, visit

    This article was featured in the Parks Conservancy August 2013 Park E-ventures.

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  • President Obama recently articulated his point of view on climate change in a policy speech at George Washington University. For many people who work on climate change on a daily basis, including the Institute at the Golden Gate, it was a long-awaited and welcome boost. It also got us thinking about our own point of view on climate change as it relates to our core constituency of parks and other protected areas.

    According to a recent survey conducted by Yale University’s Project on Climate Change Communications, 70% of Americans believe that climate change should be a priority for Congress and the President. This represents an opening for parks in the national climate change dialogue. There is a desire for action and parks are well-positioned, trusted sources of information that can help the American public understand and feel the scope of the issue and what action is needed by our elected officials, our institutions, and each other.

    In our recent report, Climate in the Parks: Innovative Climate Change Education in Parks, we state that “The onset of climate change has become one of the greatest challenges facing parks and protected areas in the 21st century [and] embedded in this challenge there is also opportunity, as parks offer visual, historic, and tangible examples of the impacts of climate change.” The Institute’s point of view aligns with President Obama’s—that climate change is a defining issue for our time, that the science is evolving in depth, but settled in assessment, and that responding is not a political priority, it is a moral obligation.

    We also believe that parks are a vital natural and community resource in our collective national response to climate change and that President Obama should reach out to the broad parks community and engage our active participation in helping to educate all of us on the challenges and opportunities of a changing climate. We’re in this together.

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  • Park, health, and community organizations from all nine Bay Area counties—including the Institute at the Golden Gate—launched a coordinated effort called Healthy Parks, Healthy People: Bay Area in June to provide approachable, culturally relevant park programming for communities with high health needs. The programs, which involved over two dozen diverse organizations, kicked off on June 1 and will continue the first Saturday of every month.

    The programs brought over 100 people out to parks across the region, many for the first time. Families, seniors, and community groups participated in activities ranging from a stroll around the Crissy Field tidal marsh to a healthy hike in Santa Clara County to an interpretive walk at Point Pinole Regional Shoreline in the East Bay. Participating agencies had staff on hand to introduce visitors to the features of the park and talk with people about the many physical and mental health benefits of spending time outdoors.

    With mounting evidence that people of all ages are more physically active when outside and often experience lowered stress levels in that environment, parks and health care providers are working together to make it easier to spend time outdoors. Together, we are helping to create a healthier Bay Area population through the regular use and enjoyment of parks and public lands right here in our own backyards.

    This regional collaborative is part of the international Healthy Parks, Healthy People movement that takes a holistic approach to promote the health and well-being of people and the sustainability of the planet.

    To learn more about Healthy Parks, Healthy People or to join an activity near you visit See you in the parks!

    This article was featured in the July 2013 Park E-ventures.

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  • We’ve seen the statistics. For the first time in history, the majority of people now live in cities. What’s more, urbanization is rising rapidly, with today’s 3.5 billion city dwellers swelling to 5 billion in 2030 and 6.3 billion by 2050. Is there a role for parks in ensuring that such rapid growth is sustainable? How can parks be part of the solution to human health and wellbeing as our cities continue to grow?

    Ever since urban parks were first designed and built by pioneers such as Frederick Law Olmstead, the importance of natural spaces in cities has been recognized and supported. Parks are an affordable resource providing an abundance of mental, physical, and social health benefits while at the same time contributing directly to common goods such as air and water quality, biodiversity and carbon sequestration. Today’s global Healthy Parks, Healthy People movement is an example of urban parks’ value and relevance. This movement has mobilized public lands as a free or low-cost preventive health resource, fostering programmatic partnerships with individuals, families, and community health organizations as a way to increase their relevance and build constituencies with stewardship values.

    We tend to think of the urban and the natural as opposites, but I would argue that the connections between human health, societal health, and environmental health play out robustly in all aspects of urban life (UCLA’s Jon Christensen might agree). The American Planning Association also identifies a host of ways that parks and open spaces are key to improving life in cities, including:

    • Community engagement & revitalization
    • Economic development
    • Creating safer neighborhoods
    • Green infrastructure
    • Helping children learn
    • Arts and cultural programs
    • Promoting tourism
    • Smart growth
    • Climate change management

    As urbanization continues apace, we at the Institute at the Golden Gate recognize the growing need for practical tools to help urban parks make these important contributions. Over the coming months, we’ll be sharing stories from interviews in our own backyard and beyond as we build our urban program. As with our health, food, and climate work, we will share stories from the brightest spots of innovation, bring together communities of practice around key issues, and ultimately make policy recommendations that are field-tested and stakeholder-approved.

    We welcome your feedback and engagement as we build out our connections and urban activities.


    Stephanie Duncan
    Program Manager

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  • Congratulations to the National Park Service for their commitment to providing healthy and sustainable food in our nation’s parks. Today senior White House officials announced that all park visitors will have healthy and nutritious food choices at 250 food and beverage operations throughout the country, reaching 23 million meals served annually. Right here in the Bay Area, Muir Woods Café has already received national recognition for serving 90% organic, healthy, sustainable, and Food Network acclaimed food for the park – stop by and have a taste!

    To read the official National Park Service Healthy Food Announcement click here.

    Healthy Parks, Healthy People!


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