Parks are vital resources in communities for promoting physical, social, psychological and environmental health.1-3 They provide places for children to play, adults to recharge, and neighbors to meet and connect. However, in communities across the United States and other countries around the world, not all neighborhoods have equal access to parks, and not all neighborhood parks are created equal.
Guided by an environmental justice philosophy, researchers and professionals in parks and recreation, public health and related fields have sought to explore such issues in order to identify and eliminate so-called “park deserts.” Environmental justice, broadly speaking, refers to the idea that no group should bear a disproportionate burden of the causes (e.g., lack of parks) or consequences (e.g., obesity) of environmental health issues.4 In many urban areas across the U.S., persons from lower income and racial minority backgrounds often exhibit poorer health behaviors (e.g., physical activity) and outcomes (e.g., diabetes).5-6 Numerous factors potentially contribute to health concerns among low-income and minority residents, including lower education levels, less disposable income, and stress and fear associated with racism and poverty.7
However, another significant cause may be disparities in access to environmental resources that facilitate physical activity.4 Just like garbage dumps or polluting factories, this too is an environmental justice issue known as “deprivation amplification” — where those with fewer personal resources that might support physical activity (e.g., income, knowledge) also tend to reside in areas that are more deprived of neighborhood physical activity resources (e.g., sidewalks, parks).8 Indeed, while not always the case, studies from places as diverse as the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Scotland, Canada and Iran have supported the idea that inequalities in park access often exist alongside various sociodemographic indicators. Given the importance of parks to physical activity participation and building healthy communities, a lack of access to quality park environments is a serious problem that has the potential to exacerbate rates of obesity and chronic disease among children, adults and seniors from the most vulnerable backgrounds.
In 2013, the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health embarked on a project with several community partners to explore these issues in Greenville County, South Carolina. The primary purpose of the study is to examine whether the availability, features and quality of parks are equitably distributed across Greenville County according to a variety of demographic indicators, such as household income and other population characteristics (e.g., race/ethnicity, education levels, youth population). The first step in the 18-month project is to map all 255 Census block groups in the county, which encompasses approximately 785 square miles and houses 467,605 residents. Public parks operated by six distinct agencies in the county will then be combined and mapped in Geographic Information Systems and overlaid with the Census data. Furthermore, observational audits of all 109 parks will be conducted using the Community Park Audit Tool to assess the available facilities (e.g., playgrounds), amenities (e.g., restrooms), and quality and safety features (e.g., landscaping, litter, lighting)9. When all analyses are completed, the study will provide valuable insights into one of the important potential causes of lower physical activity and higher obesity levels in disadvantaged neighborhoods and identify where efforts should be targeted to reduce health disparities in the City of Greenville and surrounding areas.
The project is supported by a grant from the Piedmont Health Foundation, which lists as one of its primary goals the amelioration of childhood obesity in Greenville County. According to Executive Director Katy Smith, “The foundation recognizes the value of policy, systems and environmental approaches and we view parks as a key component of healthy communities. We are excited about how this project will provide a comprehensive picture of the status of park resources in the greater Greenville area, and we are confident it will be a valuable planning tool for the six parks agencies across our county.”
Indeed, similar past research has been used for improving parks in communities nationwide. For example, in 2011, a project funded by the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City found that low-income and high-minority areas of Kansas City, Missouri, contained a greater number of parks, but on average, parks in these neighborhoods often lacked important facilities and amenities (e.g., playgrounds, trails, restrooms) and contained more quality concerns (e.g., vandalism, litter, graffiti, etc.) and fewer aesthetic features (e.g., landscaping, historical/educational monuments)10. This information aided local officials in determining what was being done well with respect to park access and availability, but also where greater investments in maintenance and facilities should be prioritized. It also provides hard data for grant applications and budget requests to support ongoing improvements to the city’s green infrastructure.
In future stages of the Greenville County project, we hope to pair the extensive park access data with information about residents’ physical activity levels, obesity and chronic disease patterns to better understand the impact of parks on community health. For example, in our past research in Kansas City, youth who lived within half a mile of a park were more than twice as likely to achieve recommended levels of physical activity during the course of the week.11 In Canada, another study found that youth who had access to a playground, specifically, within a nearby park were five times more likely to be a healthy weight rather than overweight or obese.12 Studies such as these emphasize the importance of ensuring all residents, especially children, have easy access to parks.
As we move forward with ensuring environmental justice, researchers and professionals in public health, planning, and parks and recreation must work together to examine policies and practices that contribute to and might rectify disparities in access to safe and attractive parks and open spaces. Combined with data about the current state of resources, this will lead to significant advancements in leveling the playing field so all future generations may enjoy the health benefits of public parks.
Andrew Kaczynski, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Built Environment and Community Health (BEACH) Laboratory in the Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior within the Arnold School of Public Health and the CDC Prevention Research Center at the University of South Carolina. Morgan Hughey is a Ph.D. student and project manager in the same department and a resident of Greenville County.
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