LAWRENCEVILLE - At the playgrounds, new parents push their babies, laughing as they rise into the air on swings. The bigger kids run and play, learning to kick their first soccer ball or take a swing at a baseball.
At the pools, teenagers swim, while seniors work their joints in water aerobics class. Men and women throughout Gwinnett enjoy art at the parks, or play basketball or tennis.
Even the dogs have a place to play at the county's 39 parks.
The system, which hosts 65,000 people in programs, camps and events each year and nearly 50,000 kids in youth sports, was named the best in the nation last month by the National Recreation and Park Association.
"This award validates what we already knew," Lois Allen of the county's Recreation Authority said after accepting the gold medal award in Baltimore. "The winners are Gwinnettians whose lives are enriched because they have spent time in Gwinnett County's parks."
Two years ago, the Gwinnett Parks and Recreation Department celebrated its 20th anniversary. The program began in 1986, as the county's population began to boom, when residents voted to tax themselves to pay for the program.
Since then, the system has grown to encompass 8,888.48 acres at 39 parks. The acreage is even larger than the county seat of Lawrenceville.
In addition to 39 playgrounds, 17 pools and 132 sports fields, the system has 64 miles of walking, jogging, equestrian and mountain biking trails - a distance that is four miles longer than the full distance of Interstate 285 around Atlanta.
Trails are one of the most popular attractions, said Director Sharon Plunkett.
She said the diversity in programs and in the people they serve was one of the highlights of the county's application for the award. Resident involvement, from people helping plan parks to the nearly 200,000 volunteer hours logged in 2007, was also key.
Gwinnett was a finalist for the award in the largest category (for populations of more than 250,000) in 1999 and 2006. The program topped parks systems in Fort Worth, Texas, East Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Las Vegas, the other finalists in the contest.
"I believe we are a success because the citizens expect a quality of life including recreation," Plunkett said. "What a great honor that has been bestowed upon the citizens and the staff."
For more information about the county parks program, go to www.gwinnettparks.com.