The Paradox of Parks in Low-Income Areas

Park Use and Perceived Threats

Published in: Environment and Behavior, v.48, no. 1, Jan. 2016, p. 230-245

Posted on on January 21, 2016

by Deborah A. Cohen, Bing Han, Kathryn Pitkin Derose, Stephanie Williamson, Terry Marsh, Laura Raaen, Thomas L. McKenzie

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Research Question

  1. What characteristics of parks in low-income areas affect perceptions of safety and influence whether people use them?

Concerns about safety and perceived threats have been considered responsible for lower use of parks in high-poverty neighborhoods. To quantify the role of perceived threats on park use, we systematically observed 48 parks and surveyed park users and household residents in low-income neighborhoods in the City of Los Angeles. Across all parks, the majority of both park users and local residents perceived parks as safe or very safe. We noted apparently homeless individuals during nearly half of all observations, but very few instances of fighting, intimidating groups, smoking, and intoxication. The presence of homeless individuals was associated with higher numbers of park users while the presence of intoxicated persons was associated with lower numbers. Overall, the strongest predictors of increased park use were the presence of organized and supervised activities. Therefore, to increase park use, focusing resources on programming may be more fruitful than targeting perceived threats.

Key Findings

  • Activities, especially supervised activities, increased park usage substantially.
  • Presence of homeless persons, though common, was not a barrier to park use.
  • Presence of intoxicated persons was perceived as a threat to safety, and was associated with decreased park use.
  • The number of park users was positively associated with presence of vendors, such as food carts.


Researchers recommend that park administrators focus more on providing organized and supervised activities than on reducing perceived safety threats.

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