How to Help Parks Help City Residents

Oct 30, 2012, 7:30 PM

Husband and wife walking in a park.

City parks can be a cost-free venue for people of all ages and backgrounds to be physically active. Two presenters at the American Public Health Association meeting discussed programs to increase physical activity opportunities in city parks during a session on Tuesday afternoon. The two projects were funded by Communities Putting Prevention to Work grants and focused on neighborhoods that have a high proportion of low-income and minority residents.

Adam B. Becker, PhD, MPH, from Lurie Children's Hospital, spoke about the work the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children (CLOCC) undertook to increase walking access to parks. Members of 10 community-based organizations were trained to assess barriers to park access using the Neighborhood Walkability Assessment Tool.  The tool included analyses of possible recommendations to overcome any identified obstacles to walking.

CLOCC also created a guide to be used by city planners and engineers when deciding how to improve the walkability of local streets. The guide included suggestions such as improving sidewalks and installing pedestrian countdown timers and pedestrian islands in streets. Dr. Becker said that the city agencies are excited to have better data to help them identify walkabilty problems and prioritize solutions.

In the second presentation, Mary Thomas, MPH, from the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, described a program that installed outdoor fitness equipment for use by community members in city parks. The goal of this program was to increase park use, and to increase physical activity among residents when they use parks.

In a partnership with the Parks and Recreation Department, fitness equipment was installed in 28 San Antonio parks, and the project was publicized using flyers and newspapers. A survey of park users showed that 54 percent spent more time in the park after the installation of fitness equipment, and most said that the equipment was user friendly and had clear instructions.

Park users identified the lack of water fountains and shade as the biggest barriers to using the fitness equipment more often.  And, it should be noted that 88 percent of park users traveled to the park by car. San Antonio and Chicago clearly have the opportunity to learn from each other’s efforts.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.