Presentation at the 2015 Active Living Research Annual Conference.
In prior research, individual perceptions of safety influence self-reported park use, such that people who consider a park unsafe are less likely to use it. Nevertheless, in multiple studies we have conducted, neither park users’ nor nearby residents’ perceptions of safety were correlated with observed park use. We did, however find that parks in low-income areas are used less than those in high income areas, even after adjusting for differences in size, local population size, staffing, and programming. In 2013-2014 we collected baseline data in 48 parks in low-income areas in Los Angeles as part of an RCT. We analyzed the data about park conditions, particularly incivilities (e.g., observed presence of homeless persons, gang members, people under the influence of alcohol and drugs) relative to observed park use in an effort to better understand if these incivilities are associated with park use. Further, we explored whether there is a relationship between collective efficacy, mental health, and park use.
1) To describe the relationship between incivilities and use of low-income area neighborhood parks 2) To describe the relationship between collective efficacy, a measure of community members’ willingness to help and trust each other, and park use and perceptions of park safety and incivilities in low-income neighborhoods. 3) To describe the relationship between self-reported mental health among park users and residents and perceptions of park safety and incivilities in low income neighborhoods.
The 48 neighborhood parks and recreation centers studied were in low income neighborhoods (poverty> 19% of households) within the City of Los Angeles and collectively served a population of about 2 million people (primarily Latino and African American) who lived within a 1-mile radius of the parks. Trained observers used SOPARC (System for Observing Play and Active Recreation in Communities) and conducted environmental audits while visiting each park on 6 days, 3 times per day on randomly selected days and times over a 6 month period spanning 2 consecutive seasons (e.g., spring to summer, fall to winter). Observers counted park users by age group and physical activity level and documented contextual factors, including the presence of apparently homeless individuals, gangs, drinking, smoking, (smoking is banned in City of LA public parks) and stray dogs. In addition the observers surveyed over 2,800 park users and residents living within a 1-mile radius of the park. They asked respondents about their park use and health as well as a measure of collective efficacy and mental health.
Observers made 864 visits to the parks and counted over 65,000 park users. There were more people seen in parks that had more supervised and organized activities. Observers noted multiple incivilities—of the 48 parks 7 had dogs without leashes, 25 had people smoking, 26 had people drinking alcohol and appeared to be intoxicated, 44 had individuals who appeared to be homeless, 9 had over 7 homeless persons observed at least once, 7 had groups of males considered intimidating or gang members. Nonetheless, there appeared to be no negative correlation of any of these incivilities and number of park users. In fact, the correlations were positive: the more people in a park, the more likely we were to observe intimidating groups, homeless people, intoxicated people, and loose dogs. Measures of collective efficacy and social cohesion also were not associated with observed park use. However, where collective efficacy and social cohesion was higher among park users and residents, there were less likely to be individuals in the parks who were either smoking or appeared to be intoxicated. Higher levels of collective efficacy were associated with higher levels of park safety perceptions among park users and residents. However perceptions of park safety were again not associated with observed park use. Perceived lack of park safety was associated with lower mental health.
In these urban neighborhood parks, incivilities did not appear to be related to park use; the availability of supervised and organized activities still appear to be the main drivers of neighborhood park use. In low-income neighborhoods, incivilities may be a consequence of high park use rather than causing low use. Collective efficacy may be a mechanism that provides some social control to reduce anti-social behavior, or it could be a consequence of how parks and used and how people behave in them.
Because this is a cross-sectional analysis, it is not possible to know the direction of how parks influence or are influenced by collective efficacy. Longitudinal studies may help clarify the relationship. “Incivilities” in low-income parks should not necessarily be the direct target of interventions, if the ultimate goal is to increase park use. Focusing on programming might be more fruitful.