The wide availability of public parks in communities across the country makes them important resources in promoting active lifestyles. A number of studies suggest that parks contribute significantly to physical activity (PA) among adults and children but not all park features produce the same levels of physical activity. Some studies suggests that parks are used more often and users are more active following improvements or renovations but the cost may vary greatly among different types of improvements and features. To find the optimum balance between cost and PA participation a number of questions should be considered, such as: What are the financial costs of adding or maintaining new facilities that could increase use and activity? Or what are the life span costs relative to increased use and additional physical activity?
A recent study provides estimates of physical activity intensity (calories burned) for different park areas. The number of people in each area and the cost of constructing each facility are combined into an index that measures the cost of the facility relative to PA intensity. This allows park areas to be ranked based on their cost and ability to promote physical activity. Below are a few of the finding of that study:
- The four highest active energy expenditure areas were: football fields, soccer fields (large and small) and tracks.
- Zones designated for picnicking were all less than 1.5 kcal/kg/hr, irrespective of their sizes.
- The most efficient zones that maximized energy expenditure while minimizing the construction and maintenance costs were multi-use courts and small shelters followed by small and medium open areas, medium and large basketball courts, and medium volleyball courts.
- While shelters produce the least energy expenditure their low cost, maintenance and user participation ranked them at the top of efficiency zones.
- The least efficient zones (maximized cost and minimize physical activity) were large trails (mostly large walkways) and large volleyball courts, pools, medium playgrounds, and all sizes of softball/baseball fields.
Answers to these questions can provide objective information to park officials, policymakers, and citizens to help them make more informed decisions about park facilities construction to promote active lifestyles. But to date, no ideal mathematical formula exists that tells us what to put into a park to “make” people active or healthy or to optimize a park’s design for achieving multiple goals. The prospect of a formula or rubric that would roll up all of the desired outcomes from parks and greenspace into a single model of coefficients and variables is alluring. Ideally, a park system would be expected to yield a set quantity of energy expenditure per capita, as well as other benefits.
The report is supported by Active Living Research.
About the author
Luis J. Suau is an Associate Professor at Shaw University. His research examines park-based physical activity and health in low income and minority communities. In this work, Dr. Suau focuses on the role of neighborhood disorder, park and recreation facility quality, social cohesion, and crime and safety perceptions and their effects on use of parks and physical activity.