The look of America is changing. Undeniable demographic shifts during the past half-century have shown the makeup of U.S. households is becoming more racially diverse and many residents have seen flat or declining annual incomes. Nonwhite households with lower income levels also report higher incidence of chronic disease, including obesity, diabetes and hypertension. These same households also report lower park usage overall, despite parks and recreation being some of the most accessible and readily available outlets for exercise and connections to nature.
There are many factors that contribute to the state of affairs as described above, and many of them — income inequality, institutionalized racism, stigmas attached to single-parent households, cultural differences, comprehensive healthcare availability, etc. — cannot be wholly addressed through parks and recreation alone. However, leaders in our field can have a significant impact in reaching traditionally underserved communities and encouraging their use of parks. The problems are varied and complicated, but some solutions may be easier than we imagine.
In 2011, Yingling Fan, a McKnight Land-Grant assistant professor at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, partnered with several other researchers and the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board to quantify the incidence of park use among communities of color in specific Minneapolis neighborhoods. The three study areas were racially and culturally diverse, with a higher than average population of families living below the poverty level, as well as single-parent and minority families. Through surveys and follow-up questionnaires paired with targeted incentives, researchers identified several impediments to park use with the top results including weather, time and a general lack of information. While we can’t do much about the weather, park and recreation leaders can play a role in addressing time and awareness concerns.
“There are many different barriers to park use,” Fan says. “There needs to be a very coordinated effort including better marketing of the benefits of park use, but at same time, we need to tailor that language and customize it so that the message will be embraced by specific culture groups.” Fan says considering the social needs and expectations of Latino, Asian, African-American and Native American groups will inform the way park and recreation programming and available amenities are communicated. “For example, certain groups see parks as places for social interaction, family and social gatherings, so it would be important to emphasize those benefits of parks, while at the same time telling them a bit more about how parks are places for physical activity, stress mitigation, etc.”
Strategies for Inclusion
In 2014, the Minnesota Metropolitan Council (MMC) produced the study, Regional Park Use among Select Communities of Color, which sought to identify barriers to regional park visitation among communities of color. In partnership with several community-based organizations, the MMC facilitated 16 focus groups involving Asian immigrants or Asian-Americans, Hispanics/Latinos/Latinas, African immigrants, African-Americans, Caucasians and individuals from mixed-race backgrounds. Participants were interviewed about their preferred outdoor activities, their concepts of what a “park” entailed, whether they had visited a regional park in the past, what barriers prevented them from visiting regional parks, their concerns related to parks and trails, and their suggestions for ways to enhance the park system. Their answers track closely with Fan’s observations, suggesting attainable solutions like producing various informational materials in different languages, making sure parks are safe and well-maintained, and diversifying programmatic offerings, among others.
When it’s time to produce program schedules, Fan advises park and recreation professionals put themselves in the shoes of those constituents who may not take advantage of their community park systems. “[Dual-worker and single-parent families] face a lack of leisure time,” she says. “They have longer working hours, and in many cases, all household responsibility falls on a single parent. Lack of leisure time is one of the most significant barriers to park use, so it is very important that park planners have this information in their mind when devising schedules for park programs. Unfortunately, a lot of park programs are scheduled during work days, so more weekend programs are important, too.”
Studies like Fan’s and that of the MMC are rich in data and possibility. They remind us that solutions for increased access among underserved groups are varied, creative and well within reach — all we need to do is ask and act.
Samantha Bartram is the Associate Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine.