Cover: Are Food Deserts Also Play Deserts?

Are Food Deserts Also Play Deserts?

Published in: Journal of Urban Health, v. 93, no. 2, Apr. 2016, p 235-243

Posted on Apr 19, 2016

by Deborah A. Cohen, Gerald P. Hunter, Stephanie Williamson, Tamara Dubowitz

Research Questions

  1. How much do local residents use parks in food desert—low-income, low-resource—areas of Pittsburgh in comparison to residents in other areas of the city, and nationally?
  2. What features of the parks, programming in the parks, or the environment surrounding the parks could increase resident park usage?

Although food deserts are areas that lack easy access to food outlets and considered a barrier to a healthy diet and a healthy weight among residents, food deserts typically comprise older urban areas which may have many parks and street configurations that could facilitate more physical activity. However, other conditions may limit the use of available facilities in these areas. This paper assesses the use of parks in two Pittsburgh food desert neighborhoods by using systematic observation. We found that while the local parks were accessible, they were largely underutilized. We surveyed local residents and found that only a minority considered the parks unsafe for use during the day, but a substantial proportion suffered from health limitations that interfered with physical activity. Residents also felt that parks lacked programming and other amenities that could potentially draw more park users. Parks programming and equipment in food desert areas should be addressed to account for local preferences and adjusted to meet the needs and limitations of local residents, especially seniors.

Key Findings

  • Residents of food desert neighborhoods used their nearby parks significantly less than residents of other areas both locally and nationally.
  • Few organized or supervised activities were observed in the low-income neighborhood parks.
  • Individuals residing near the observed parks experienced disproportionate amounts of disability and physical limitations.
  • Park users in the observed areas were not representative of the demographic mix of local residents; substantially more males used the parks than females, and children and teens used the parks more than older adults.
  • Over 85 percent of neighborhood residents considered the nearby parks safe to use during daylight hours.


Park administrators should consider making small investments in programming and accessibility renovations to increase park usage by local residents.

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