This study summarizes more than a decade of research on how well neighborhood parks in Los Angeles support physical activity. Between 2003 and 2015, with funding primarily from the National Institutes of Health, researchers at the RAND Corporation studied 83 parks in the city of Los Angeles, conducting thousands of observations and fielding nearly 28,000 surveys of park users and local residents. Our recommendations for future directions are based on this work.
Los Angeles has a wealth of assets in public parks and an excellent climate that encourages people to spend time outdoors. Parks are venues that not only support physical activity but are also places where people can go to relax, socialize, or just spend time in a natural setting and soak up some sunshine. Compared with many cities across the country, Los Angeles city parks are used more frequently, and they have more facilities, amenities, and organized activities. In any given neighborhood, about half of all residents said that they used the parks, most of them routinely. When they visited a park, they reported staying for one or two hours. Parks are also the top venue that people choose for engaging in routine exercise. The majority of residents, including residents of low-income, high-crime neighborhoods, consider their neighborhood parks safe or very safe. We also found that parks get more use when they are larger, when they have more facilities, when they offer more planned activities and events, and when their services and activities are marketed to the public.
While there is frequent activity in city parks, there is room for improvement. Parks are underutilized by girls and teenage girls, and they are especially underutilized by seniors. Overall, nearly half of all Los Angeles city residents living within 1 mile of a park did not use that park. Most did not know about the activities that were offered, and the majority of residents and more than a third of park users did not know the park's staff.
Our top three recommendations are as follows:
- The city of Los Angeles should devote a larger proportion of its budget to city parks. Park spending per capita in Los Angeles is currently less than half of the per capita amounts that are spent by New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Although the city is already doing a lot with very few resources, parks and park use would likely improve if there were more funding to support outreach, programs, and capital improvements.
- More resources should be devoted to outreach and marketing. Many residents and park users do not know park staff and do not find out about park programs and events, so parks are often underutilized, and many programs are undersubscribed. A marketing team needs to take advantage of all types of media to effectively promote park activities.
- A tracking system should be instituted so that park administrators can assess the impact of their efforts to improve programming outreach and facilities. This information will be useful to guide future decisions on programming, outreach, and capital improvements.
The City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks has a strong infrastructure but could benefit from additional investments in programming, outreach, and capital improvements. A tracking system could be useful for evaluating new efforts, as well as to provide evidence of the extensive use of city parks.