National report identifies strategies to improve usage of neighborhood parks

Graphic from the national report called  Active Parks, Healthy Cities .

Graphic from the national report called Active Parks, Healthy Cities.

Article compiled from the national report Active Parks, Healthy Cities by the Western Planner staff

Neighborhood parks that are well-designed with diverse facilities and targeted programming with good marketing initiatives encourage more people to be active, according to the national report called Active Parks, Healthy Cities.

The RAND Corporation and City Parks Alliance, with help from The Trust for Public Land and funding from the National Institutes of Health, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, led a National Study of Neighborhood Parks to identify to what degree neighborhood parks in America's cities encourage people to be physically active.

Over two years (2014–2016), data collectors observed park design and behaviors in 174 neighborhood parks in 25 cities across the country. The study included a few cities from Western states - Westminster, Colorado, Albuquerque, New Mexico and Portland, Oregon.

For this study, neighborhood parks are defined as being between 2 and 20 acres and intended to serve residents living within a 1-mile radius of the parks. Researchers documented park use, including who was using the park, their age, gender, and level of physical activity (sedentary, moderate or vigorous), specific activities, as well as park characteristics, amenities, and current conditions.

Key Findings

Field staff collected data at selected parks within each city using the System for Observing Play and Recreation in Communities (SOPARC) method. The study includes these key findings:

  • Proximity to a park does not guarantee people will use it: amenities, signage, and programming all determine who is active in parks and how people use them.

  • Girls are less likely than boys to spend time in parks; only 40 percent of children and 35 percent of teenagers observed in neighborhood parks were girls. Few girls were seen participating in sports or playing in pick-up games, like basketball.

  • Adults comprise 49 percent of park visitors. Seniors account for only 4 percent of park users, even though they make up nearly 20 percent of the general population.

  • When walking loops are present in parks, twice as many seniors are active, in contrast to parks that lack loops. In general, walking loops encourage more people to engage in health-promoting, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Yet less than one-third of neighborhood parks across the United States have pathways for walking.

  • A nearby park equipped with the right facilities and programming can help get people off the couch and outside where they have a better chance to enjoy healthier lives.

The Report's Four Recommendations

Park Programming

Everyone loves to see a beautiful park, but it turns out that nothing increases park use and physical activity as much as programming-providing supervised activities to help people make use of the space. According to the study, each additional supervised activity increased park use by 48 percent and physical activity by 37 percent. Unfortunately, programs in neighborhood parks are few and far between—especially in parks in high-poverty neighborhoods. In particular, seniors and teen girls are underrepresented in parks and benefit greatly from programming targeted at their needs and interests.

Park Design

Park and playspace design influence how much a park is used and how physically active park users will be. Parks with walking loops were found to have 80 percent more users, over twice as many seniors, and 90 percent higher levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. With playgrounds, more is better. The National Study of Neighborhood Parks found that for every element added to a playground, use (and activity level) increases by 50 percent.

Albuquerque, NM has taken advantage of the popularity of pickleball, a lower-intensity combination of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. Albuquerque offers the sport on converted tennis courts in six parks and has two dedicated pickleball centers.

Good park design also includes public restrooms. The report includes a case study from Portland, OR about the design of a better public toilet. The “Portland Loo” is the wheelchair accessible and easy-to-clean metal. The restroom has open bars at the top and bottom for ventilation and the police can see how many people are in them. The system uses water for flushing but there is no sink—only hand sanitizer.

Park Marketing and Outreach

On-site marketing, such as banners, posters, and signs, are proven effective at increasing park use and physical activity, and many cities are effectively using social media and online tools to connect people with parks. The study found that park departments deploying these kinds of publicity experienced a 62 percent increase in users and a 63 percent increase in physical activity.

The report includes a case study of how the City of Westminster, CO used social media as an outreach tool. To attract people to parks, Westminster Parks Department launched a monster egg hunt via Facebook. By claiming that “residents report unusual sightings at Standley Lake Regional Park,” the department spread news of the sighting of strange eggs that had been found around the lake. #StandleyMonster updates received significant social media engagement, with one video getting more than 30,000 views.

Measuring Park Use

One of the key findings of the study was that, overall, most neighborhood parks are underused, a fact that only emerges with measurement. Parks that are well-used are much more likely to have a vocal constituency to support them, and park agencies that measure park use are better positioned to justify public spending to maintain and enhance them. The report also briefly discusses the use of new technologies enable cities to passively collect user data such as passive infrared, ground sensors and piezoelectric strips, as well as solar-powered and cellular enabled park benches.


Full Report

To read the full report, visit https://www.cityparksalliance.org/activeparks or download the PDF


City Parks Alliance

City Parks Alliance is the only independent, nationwide membership organization solely dedicated to urban parks. It unites and serves a growing network of hundreds of civic and community leaders, government agencies, parks and recreation authorities, funders and others. Visit https://www.cityparksalliance.org


RAND Corporation

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis. For seven decades, RAND has used rigorous, fact-based research and analysis to help individuals, families, and communities throughout the world be safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous. Our research spans the issues that matter most, such as energy, education, health care, justice, the environment, international affairs, and national security. Visit https://www.rand.org/


The Trust for Public Land


The Trust for Public Land's mission is to create parks and protect land for people, ensuring healthy, livable communities for generations to come. Every park, playground, and public space we create is an open invitation to explore, wonder, discover, and play. We're proud to say that we've been connecting communities to the outdoors—and to each other—since 1972. Today, millions of Americans live within a 10-minute walk of a park or natural area we helped create, and countless more visit every year. Visit https://www.tpl.org


November 2018

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