Underage Drinking in Boston Parks


By Colin R. Gallant, MPH, CHES
Health Educator, Harbor Health Services, Inc.

Underage drinking is a problem in Boston. About 31% of Boston high school students report having had at least one drink of alcohol in the past 30 days, and about 15% of Boston high school students report having 5 or more drinks within 2 hours in the past month. The Prevention Services Department at Harbor Health Services, Inc works to identify factors about underage drinking that may be specific to our community, and find ways to address and change them in order to promote health. This process has informed the use of our other strategies done across the city, such as in-school education, shoulder-tap surveys to assess how likely an adult is to buy alcohol for a minor, and “Sticker Shock” campaigns to remind people of drinking laws regarding providing alcohol to minors. However, the program I’d like to tell you about is on which focuses on the community’s parks.

What does park safety have to do with alcohol? Both the data that we’ve collected as well as the stories we hear from youth suggest that a lot of risky underage drinking in Dorchester happens in the neighborhood’s parks. There are many factors that make parks safe-havens for underage drinking. For starters, the parks are typically either very wooded or very open. Heavily wooded parks make it easy to hide your activities from police or patrols that might be passing by, while very open parks allow groups to scatter in any direction at the first sight of trouble. Added to this fact, many of the parks in Dorchester are perceived to be dangerous. The word “creepy” is frequently thrown around when our youth are asked to describe the park. This lack of perceived safety means that residents of the neighborhood avoid the park, which in turn makes the park a great place to do things you don’t want people to see. The presence of activities like drinking reinforces the perception of danger, and so the problem is self-perpetuated.

Our Park Safety Audit Program started in 2010, with our first audit of a park in the lower Neponset River Reservation. Since then, we have gone on to audit close to 50 parks in the Dorchester area, some maintained by the City of Boston, others by the State of Massachusetts. When we do a park audit, we send a coalition member, along with local youth from the community, to the decided upon park. From there, the auditors rank various features of the park in order to assess its safety and conduciveness to underage drinking. We look at the available lighting, the signage, litter, and the ability for someone to access emergency services. We then summarize our findings into a letter that we pass on to body that oversees the park. Typically this is the Boston Parks and Recreation Department or the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Park audits are a method of retaking our parks for their intended purpose. By improving the lighting in the park, or adding emergency contact information (two commonly suggested improvements), the park could appear less dangerous to residents and therefore become more widely used by residents looking to enjoy nature, and less by teens looking to enjoy a beer. Moreover, 80% of youth we surveyed reported their underage drinking would be described as “wrong” or “very wrong” by their parents. Given the increased likelihood that parents may find out about their drinking if youth drank in their home, it is likely that eliminating parks as a potential site to host underage drinking would prevent underage drinking, rather than just keeping the drinking indoors.

Due to the focus on community-level change to prevent underage drinking, park audits have many other merits; the first being that park audits reach beyond the classroom. This makes messaging around underage drinking consistent between school and the greater community. Additionally, we involve youth in the Park Audit process; meaning that our suggested changes come from the youth who will be affected, and that those same youth can be seen as leaders among their peers, modeling alcohol-free attitudes and behaviors. Finally, the park audit process in general serves a variety of unique goals beyond underage drinking, including supporting environmental justice initiatives.

In our most recent park audit, we partnered with VietAID’s Dorchester Environmental Action Program (DEAP) to look at Doherty Gibson Playground, next to the intersection between Gibson Street and Dorchester Avenue. The members of the DEAP program, who focus mainly on environmental justice, met me at the park where I provided a brief training over what to look for in our park audits.

After taking some time to look around the playground, we went over our findings. In general, the DEAP youth felt that the lighting ranked rather poorly, with many of the fixtures are blocked by trees and bushes. Signage was adequate, although some of it was obscured or at least not posted in an area where a park visitor would look. There was also a lot of trash in the playground area. A woman that we spoke to expressed that she did not like the woodchips in the playground area because she thought they were dangerous for children. We also felt that there needed to be more signage explaining who to contact in case of emergency.

The DEAP youth then drafted a letter to the City of Boston’s Parks Department, and after a few weeks, we received a reply.   I met with a program manager from the Parks Department along with our contact at VietAID and two youth with DEAP to go over our findings. In the end, the program manager said she would plan to trim tree branches that were obscuring street lights. We also discussed their plans to add additional signage that more clearly explained who to contact in case of an emergency, and also the address of your location so, if need be, it could be explained to emergency services. Lastly, the DEAP youth and the Program Manager agreed to talk more about a plan to repaint some of the playground’s garbage cans. And with that, Doherty Gibson Playground is poised to be a more welcoming place to residents of Field’s Corner who are looking to enjoy the park the way it was meant to be enjoyed.

Over the next year, we hope to audit 12 more parks. We hope that you’ll follow our progress; each month we will post a summary of our audit to the Harbor Health Services blog: https://theharborsedge.wordpress.com/.



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