The potential of parks (with programs)

In San Fernando, Calif., kinesiology student volunteers from California State University lead a free exercise program called 100 Citizens Outdoor Fitness Program.

What gets people out and exercising in the park? Is it the characteristics of the community that surrounds the park, such as the presence or absence of crime and blight? Or is it the organized activities, such as the presence or absence of a Zumba class taught on Thursday nights by a local resident in neon tights?

The results of a study this month in the journal Public Health by researchers from RAND Corporation, University of Pennsylvania, and other academic institutions suggest that the latter might be more important. The study surveyed 24 parks in four cities, including six in Philadelphia, as well as 7,000 people who use and/or live near them.

Compared to the parks in other cities, those in Philadelphia stood out in a number of ways. While the neighborhoods surrounding the Philly parks were most impoverished—28.5% of households within a half-mile were below the federal poverty line —all six parks were staffed by a full time employee, more than the parks in other cities. Parks in Philadelphia also appeared to be more of a hub for community life. Seventy-nine percent of park goers in Philly reported meeting people they knew at the park, in contrast to 60 percent in Chapel Hill, N.C., 42 percent in Columbus, Ohio, and 39 percent in Albuquerque, N.M.

Compared to the other cities, Philadelphia had the highest proportion of park goers who reported that they “usually exercise at the park” (23 percent), but also the highest proportion who reported that they “never exercise at all” (31 percent). Philly park goers reported visiting the park with the greatest frequency, an average of 2.7 days per week, but also having the most “screen time” (e.g., watching television), an average of 3.2 hours per week.

The study’s authors looked at the data from all four cities in aggregate to identify which factors were most strongly associated with park usage and physical activity. Interestingly, neighborhood poverty, perceptions of park safety, and the aesthetics surrounding the park were not significantly associated with park use. The presence of an organized /supervised activity (e.g., sports leagues, aerobics classes) however, was strongly associated. A park with at least one organized activity had an average of 79 percent more park goers per day. Park goers also expended substantially more energy at parks with organized activities.

What are the implications of this study? There may be a great opportunity to increase rates of physical activity, and improve public health, in American cities by offering more programming at parks. Since programs can be offered at little to no cost —even led by community residents — such as when led by community residents, park programming could be a viable strategy to improve rates of physical activity in economically trying times.

Check out the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation’s volunteer page if you’re interested in volunteering to start a program at your local park.

Read more about The Public's Health.