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Research Question

  1. How can community parks contribute to physical activity?

Regular physical activity is important for both physical and mental health. However, less than half of Americans currently meet federal activity guidelines. Public neighborhood parks offer accessible infrastructure that can facilitate physical activity, and most urban U.S. residents live within a mile of at least one park. Many communities and organizations have tried to encourage park use and park-based physical activity by building new facilities or adding activity centers. However, until recently, there has been little research to understand whether these or other investments are increasing the use of parks for physical activity. RAND Corporation researchers have conducted multiple studies to examine park use and assess parks' role in promoting physical activity. They found that whether residents visit their local parks and how they decide to use them can be related to a wide range of factors, including individual characteristics, such as potential park users' ages and genders; neighborhood and environmental factors, including community poverty level and residents' perceptions of park safety; and park factors, including the numbers and types of facilities and the availability of organized activities. To support these studies, researchers developed an innovative tool, System of Observing Play and Recreation in Communities (SOPARC), to assess park use and physical activity. They also conducted in-depth surveys of park users and neighborhood residents. Their efforts provide insights into how parks are currently being used and suggest ways in which parks might be enhanced to encourage more physical activity. This report describes the tool and the research findings and recommendations.

Key Findings

Although parks play an important role in providing venues for physical activity in urban areas, they tend to be underutilized, especially for moderate to vigorous physical activity.

  • Research underscores the need to target efforts to increase park-based physical activity to specific populations.
  • There are numerous differences in how parks are used among different racial and ethnic groups, different genders, and different age groups.
  • Park facilities by themselves are not sufficient to attract users; many sit unused or underused, even after recent renovations. On-site marketing and supervised activities are the top two park features that encourage greater use of parks for physical activity. Marketing efforts are likely to be especially important in low-income neighborhoods.
  • The majority of park facilities are geared toward youths, while fewer facilities tend to target groups who are underrepresented among those using parks for moderate to vigorous physical activity — adults and especially seniors.
  • Investments to encourage physical activity will not be made without the support of local park managers. Neighborhood parks are financed on the local level, and local park managers are best positioned to understand the needs of their local populations.

Recommendations

  • Target efforts to increase park-based physical activity to specific populations. One option for increasing park use among some underserved populations might be to offer group exercise activities that promote both exercise and social interaction.
  • Offer more supervised activities and engage in marketing efforts to reach potential users. Marketing efforts are likely to be especially important in low-income neighborhoods, where parks might not be meeting the needs of local residents.
  • Carefully target investments in new facilities to increase park use for physical activities. Such features as walking loops might be the most-beneficial investments for adult and senior users. Another promising option would be to increase the number of parks so that most people would reside within a half-mile journey or ten-minute walk to a park as a common national standard.
  • Park managers, who are best positioned to understand the needs of their local populations, should define benchmarks for optimal use of local parks. Managers can begin by identifying how many people are currently using the parks for moderate to vigorous physical activity, which groups are underrepresented among park users, how much physical activity the parks can support, and how the parks can best attract that level of users on a routine basis.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report wasy supported by The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health and also by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Active Living Research program and conducted by RAND Health.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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