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Research Questions

  1. How well do neighborhood park systems support physical activity?
  2. How do park administrators assess park use?

Introduction

An extensive infrastructure of neighborhood parks supports leisure time physical activity in most U.S. cities; yet, most Americans do not meet national guidelines for physical activity. Neighborhood parks have never been assessed nationally to identify their role in physical activity.

Methods

Using a stratified multistage sampling strategy, a representative sample of 174 neighborhood parks in 25 major cities (population > 100,000) across the U.S. was selected. Park use, park-based physical activity, and park conditions were observed during a typical week using systematic direct observation during spring/summer of 2014. Park administrators were interviewed to assess policies and practices. Data were analyzed in 2014–2015 using repeated-measure negative binomial regressions to estimate weekly park use and park-based physical activity.

Results

Nationwide, the average neighborhood park of 8.8 acres averaged 20 users/hour or an estimated 1,533 person hours of weekly use. Walking loops and gymnasia each generated 221 hours/week of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Seniors represented 4% of park users, but 20% of the general population. Parks were used less in low-income than in high-income neighborhoods, largely explained by fewer supervised activities and marketing/outreach efforts. Programming and marketing were associated with 37% and 63% more hours of moderate to vigorous physical activity/week in parks, respectively.

Conclusions

The findings establish national benchmarks for park use, which can guide future park investments and management practices to improve population health. Offering more programming, using marketing tools like banners and posters, and installing facilities like walking loops, may help currently underutilized parks increase population physical activity.

Key Findings

  • Neighborhood parks and programmed activities tend to be geared toward youths more than adults.
  • Disparities in park use include low use by adults, seniors, women, and girls, and lower use in high-poverty areas.
  • Enhancements such as walking loops and subpopulation-specific programmed activities could help boost park use among older adults.
  • Offering more supervised activities and increasing outreach efforts could help overcome disparities in low-income neighborhoods.
  • Park administrators report they lack the resources to routinely assess park use and target programmed activities.

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