The benefits of a green patch of ground

The combination of land deals, developers and Gwinnett County politicians has a way of making news, often in a bad way.

Last week, a Gwinnett commissioner admitted to teaming up with her son to sell her vote on a proposed pawn shop development.

The resignation and guilty plea of Shirley Lasseter come about two years after Commission Chairman Charles Bannister and Commissioner Kevin Kenerly resigned in the wake of a grand jury investigation of dubious land deals. Kenerly has been indicted on bribery charges.

But not all Gwinnett property deals appear questionable.

Because of a personal connection, I recall another county purchase in 2001. And there’s a health connection, too.

The property was a forested area near Stone Mountain Park, in the southwest corner of Gwinnett that bordered DeKalb County. I used to live in a nearby subdivision.

On Sunday evening, as I drove by the acreage, it had been transformed — and was teeming with activity. It’s now called DeShong Park, and scores of children and adults were playing, exercising and having fun.

It is green space gone wild with recreation.

A decade ago, the county wanted to buy the forested acreage and turn it into a park. A developer planned a subdivision and a shopping center, but nearby residents and park advocates mounted a protest.

The land had Indian rock piles and contained portions of the Hightower Trail, a historic path that connected the Yellow and Chattahoochee rivers, according to an AJC article in 2001.

The County Commission split on buying the land, then decided to purchase it. It finally reached a settlement with the owner, and paid $9.4 million for it.

I don’t know whether the price was right, but I do know that the park was bustling Sunday evening. The two basketball courts had pickup games going, with others ringing the court, ready to take on the winners. The playground had kids riding swings and sliding down chutes in a modernized Jungle Gym setup.

There’s a running and bike trail and a skate park, along with horseshoe pits. And the adjoining forest has been preserved.

The park isn’t completely a paradise. The grassy areas aren’t anywhere near as lush as fairways, with splotches of dirt and rocks that are typical of the land near Stone Mountain. The closest shopping area is filled with boarded-up stores.

On Monday, a day after my first visit, two more basketball games were going, even though a rainstorm had ended only shortly before. Marcus Jackson, 17, was riding his skateboard in the skate park. “When it’s sunny, most days, everybody comes up here,’’ he said.

Research has found that the availability of such green space is associated with better health. People who live in green environs may be less likely than those surrounded by concrete to suffer a range of health problems, particularly depression and anxiety, according to a 2009 study.

And physicians, health insurers, naturalists and government agencies have banded together to help more people of all ages and economic strata engage in health-enhancing physical activity in parks and other natural environments, the New York Times’ Jane Brody wrote in 2010. The message: Get outside and get healthy.

Phillip Williams, dean of the UGA College of Public Health, told GHN recently that he recalled a childhood when mothers told children to play outside until dinnertime. Fewer children had weight problems, he said.

Scenes like DeShong Park help me believe that despite Georgia’s lousy health statistics, including those of diabetes and obesity, many people are working out in ways that are extremely healthy.

Herman Boller on Monday brought his grandson, Edwin, 11, to DeShong Park to ride his bike.

Boller, 63, is a DeKalb resident, but uses the park often. It’s safe and clean, he said.

And usually very busy. “On weekends, you almost have to have reservations,’’ he said.

Not every tract of land can yield a park like this, but those that do can improve a community’s health. A mile or so from my former home, I’ve seen a once controversial transaction work such wonders.