ALR2018 will be held February 11-14, 2018 at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Banff, Alberta, Canada.
Presentation at the 2015 Active Living Research Annual Conference.
The importance of physical activity to individual health is widely recognized, and empirical research shows that close-to-home access to parks and other recreational amenities can encourage higher levels of physical activity.[i] However, many Americans do not have parks close to home. Within the largest 60 U.S. cities, 31.7% of residents (over 16 million people) do not have access to a park within a 10-minute walk of their home[ii]; “high-need” neighborhoods (those with low-income, high-minority, and dense populations of children) tend to be particularly short of park space.[iii] Increasingly, schools and joint-use agreements (JUAs) are being used to provide essential recreational spaces and studied for their obesity prevention potential.[iv] The SPARK School Park Program, created in 1983 as a way to increase park space and access in Harris County, Texas, works to develop public schoolyards into community parks. Over 130 schoolyard-to-park conversions (“SPARK Parks”) currently exist within the county, and provide much needed park space to local residents. 340,000 people in Harris County live within a half-mile of a SPARK Park, and 129,917 people in Houston (6% of the total population) only have access to public park space within a 10-minute walk because a SPARK Park exists nearby. While access, design, and quality/condition of the built environment are understood to influence physical activity, there is a gap in the knowledge regarding what specific park features, characteristics, and policies most impact use and health.[v]
Recently, The Trust for Public Land, a national non-profit land conservation and parks organization, partnered with the SPARK School Park Program to evaluate the use of SPARK Parks and to monitor the implementation of joint-use agreements. Direct observations using SOPARC: the System for Observing Play and Recreation in Communities are being conducted at all completed SPARK Parks and ten control parks.[vi] Evaluations measure use (number of people, age, and activity levels) and accessibility, and are taking place during time periods when the SPARK Parks are available for public use (during non-school hours and on weekends). An assessment tool, based upon the Community Park Audit Tool, CPAT, is also being used in all of these parks.[vii] In addition, a survey of park users is being conducted to gather additional information about the use of these parks, barriers to use, design preferences, and other perceived benefits or impacts of parks. This information about park access, features/characteristics, conditions, and use, will help evaluate the success of these joint-use agreements, and lessons learned will be developed in collaboration with SPARK and other stakeholders.
The data collected will be used to find strategies to maximize the impacts of current parks, and develop and provide recreation practitioners with evidence-based recommendations for creating active and engaging schoolyard parks. Data collection is currently underway, and will be completed in October 2014. This data will be used in the following, specific ways: (1) Evaluate the role (in terms of park access and park use) of SPARK School Parks and associated JUAs within the county's parks and open space system; (2) Assess how park features and characteristics contribute to park use and activity (with a focus on moderate and vigorous levels); and (3) Study SPARK service areas and explore the impact of potential new SPARK Parks. Information about the current SPARK implementation process and use of these SPARK Parks, as well as new lessons learned and recommendations to improve the implementation of JUAs and schoolyard-to-park conversions, will be the focus of this presentation.
It is a unique opportunity to be able to monitor the implementation of joint-use policies and evaluate the impact of parks among such a large number of completed projects. Determining how existing schoolyard-to-park conversion programs successfully implement joint-use agreements and renovations is important for both maximizing the impact of existing programs, informing new programs, and providing information to researchers and practitioners alike. The data collected will also help inform park design and the creation of better-used, effective, and impact-maximizing park spaces.
The Trust for Public Land is currently documenting the need for new parks and identifying the most park-deficient neighborhoods in Harris County through our ParkScore methods. This on-the-ground measurement of park access and use could identify underserved areas and support the development of new SPARK Parks, help inform decisions regarding investments or reinvestment in park projects, and help to engage public agencies, elected officials, and nonprofit partners in decisions regarding the priorities and funding for improved park access and related policy implementation.
Support / Funding Source
Funding for the SPARK School Park evaluation is provided by The Houston Endowment.
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