Presentation at the 2008 Active Living Research Annual Conference
It is implicitly believed that higher quality facilities serve communities better, and many advocate that enhancing the built environment will facilitate physical activity. An opportunity to conduct a natural experiment occurred as a result of a large city passing a ballot initiative and investing millions of dollars to improve local parks.
To assess the effects of park improvements (in excess of $1 million) on the use and physical activity in community parks.
We studied 10 parks in predominantly low income minority communities over a 3-year period. Eight were neighborhood parks, each serving about 75,000 people within a 1-mile radius, and 2 were special use parks for skateboarding. All had full-time staff. Parks were paired, based on their size and facilities and the race/ethnicity and SES characteristics of the populations they served. Five received built improvements, and 5 served as comparison parks. One park received a new gymnasium, a second had their old gymnasium replaced by a new one, and in the third the existing gymnasium was refurbished. The fourth park received improvements to its walking path, picnic areas, and playground. The skate park was greatly improved by adding new ramps and a pool that nearly tripled its size.
We used SOPARC (System for Observing Physical Activity and Recreation in Communities) to assess park use before and after improvements were made. SOPARC is based on time sampling techniques in which systematic and periodic scans are made of individuals and contextual factors within pre-determined target areas in recreation settings. During a scan, the activity of each individual was coded as Sedentary (lying down, sitting, or standing), Walking, or Vigorous using specialized counters. Separate scans were made for females and males, and simultaneous entries were made for user age and race/ethnicity categories and for park characteristics (e.g., time of day; area accessibility and usability; presence of supervision and equipment; presence and classification of organized activities). Assessments were conducted during the same time of year at baseline and follow-up, with either 2 or 3 years between assessments (depending on the construction timeline) at both intervention and comparison parks. In addition, we surveyed park users and randomly selected residents living within a 2 mile radius of each park. We also conducted focus group meetings with park staff to discuss our findings.
SOPARC data showed the expanded skate park was the only park with dramatic increases in use over time, with a 6 fold increase in the number of park users compared to baseline numbers. Compared to comparison parks, no other intervention park showed an increase in patronage or physical activity. In fact, the number of people observed in 6 of 8 neighborhood parks decreased from baseline to follow-up. Similarly, both residents and park users reported less frequent leisure time physical activity at follow-up compared to baseline. Surprisingly, perceptions of park safety improved at all neighborhood parks, expect in one, where use paradoxically increased. Facility construction and enhancements, except in the enlarged skate park, were not accompanied by additional funds for staffing or programming. In contrast, the skate park offered new classes and summer camps. Overall in the three neighborhood parks that previously had gymnasiums, the hours that they gymnasia were accessible decreased by 35% after improvements were made. Survey respondents reported unfavorable changes in staffing and programming in most of the neighborhood parks.
This is one of few studies to use direct observation to assess the use of parks before and following major park construction/enhancements. Staffing and programming are critical factors in attracting park users, and numerous social factors need to be considered. To ensure new park facilities are used, city planners need to consider outreach and marketing to attract people to parks and to provide organized activities and programs to maintain and enhance utilization.
By NIEHS P50ES012383 and conducted at RAND Corporation.