DeKalb County, Ga., is increasing the community's use of local parks simply by making it easier for residents to walk to them.

"When it comes to parks, access is as important as acres," says Dr. Karen Mumford, an urban planner and biologist specializing in public health and environment. This key finding from her research in DeKalb has prompted area officials to improve accessibility through land purchases.

Because daily physical activity is critical to maintaining a healthy weight and decreasing the risk for health problems, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, advocates and researchers are eager to understand and eliminate barriers to using parks for physical activity. And so, Mumford teamed up with colleagues—at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Georgia Tech's School of City and Regional Planning, Georgia State's Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, the University of Georgia's Office of Public Service and Outreach, and Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health—to take a close look at neighborhood parks, large and small, across DeKalb County.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) provided funding for the effort through its Active Living Research program, which supports research to examine how environments and policies influence physical activity for children and their families. The ultimate goal of the program is to understand what works to increase physical activity levels to help reverse the epidemic of childhood obesity. Both the program and the Foundation place special emphasis on reaching children and families in lower-income communities and communities of color, such as DeKalb County.

Mumford and the research team began by visiting 13 parks to observe the physical activities of people there and to conduct brief interviews. They learned who was using the park; how and why they were using it; where individuals lived in relation to the park; and whether they got there by walking, biking or driving. In addition, the researchers studied park features and characteristics of the surrounding neighborhoods.

"For the first time, we were able to visually map where park visitors were actually coming from, along with each park's physical configuration and neighborhood connectivity," Mumford says. "We found striking patterns—how the layout of a neighborhood influences park accessibility."

For example, the study revealed that many people who lived within walking distance still drove to their local park because it was easier than walking. Parks with a single entrance along a busy roadway that lacked sidewalks had far fewer visitors coming on foot compared with parks with multiple entrances that were connected to neighborhoods by sidewalks and trails.

Researchers also learned that the way people access a park makes a big difference in how often and how vigorously they use it. Walkers were three times more likely than drivers to visit the park two or more days a week, and once in the park, walkers were more likely to engage in more vigorous levels of physical activity.

For Susan Hood, director of the DeKalb County Parks Bond and Greenspace Office, the bottom line is: "Do you have to get in the car to go there? That's the barrier we need to eliminate."

The county was in the process of adding community green space around the same time that the study was being conducted. Mumford met with parks commissioners and the heads of other county departments, who were "ecstatic" about the new data. "Their own departments didn't have the resources to go out and do a survey like this," she says. "When we hung our maps up on the wall, it was obvious to everyone why some parks just weren’t getting used."

Hood agrees that the study, which took place from 2004 to 2007, could not have been better timed. DeKalb officials quickly identified and purchased seven parcels adjacent to one of the parks studied; these 13 acres provide pedestrian access where it previously did not exist. In addition, officials recommended that a safe-routes-to-parks policy be developed to mirror ongoing efforts to create safe routes to schools. The study's results will be used to help implement the new policy.

"This study has had a ripple effect across the county, raising awareness and intensifying our focus on the issue of access," Hood says. "In a densely developed metropolitan area like this, it's not a question of park expansion, since the property simply isn't available. It's a matter of improving connectivity between existing parks and neighborhoods."

Mumford has since moved on to the University of Minnesota Morris. But she and her Georgia colleagues are still working together, disseminating their findings and developing policy recommendations that will increase park use and physical activity in parks—not only in DeKalb but in communities across the country.

"Investing in parks is like investing in clinics and hospitals," Mumford says. "It's definitely going to benefit the health of the community."

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