The State Indicator Report on Physical Activity released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2014 revealed that less than 38 percent of the U.S. population lives within a half mile of a park1. People who are unable to walk to parks are deprived of the opportunity to engage in two instances of physical activity — walking to the park site and participating in activities at the site2. Parks are an important destination that should be easily accessible to all citizens. Consequently, the key to ensuring accessibility to parks is through creating safe routes to parks within communities. When citizens have the resources to safely walk to parks, every trip taken by foot is an opportunity to engage in physical activity. Nevertheless, there are several physical and social barriers that make walking to parks undesirable3, a result of engineering, zoning, land use and design trends that have existed in the United States for the past 50 years. Breaking down these barriers requires a shift in the transportation system paradigm from mobility to accessibility.
Obstacles Limiting Walkability to Parks
Barriers limiting walkability to parks are dependent and unique to each specific community; however, distance and physical barriers are the most common obstacles in building safe routes to parks.
- Proximity to Parks: Long distances to parks are a deterrent of park use. Research demonstrates that people who have easy access to parks are 47 percent more likely to walk at the daily recommended level than those who do not have easy access. Moreover, when the distance from a park doubles, the likelihood of park use decreases by almost 50 percent.4
- Lack of Infrastructure: Lack of physical infrastructure is also a deterrent to park use3. Incomplete and disconnected streets present difficulties for pedestrians, thus making walking to parks an unattractive choice. Many neighborhoods lack pedestrian crossings, pedestrian bridges, paved shoulders, pedestrian signals, medians, visible crosswalks, warning signals, signs, maps, landscape cues or in-pavement lighting5.
- Crime and Traffic Safety Concerns: Traffic safety is a major barrier to active transportation. Research demonstrates that negative traffic perceptions are associated with decreased walking because people purposefully avoid dangerous traffic areas. People are especially fearful of traffic volume and speed6. Crime is another factor that discourages people from walking to parks. The type of physical design in and around parks can either create a risk factor for crime or a protective factor for residents of a neighborhood.
- Partnership Building: A major challenge to overcoming physical and social barriers limiting walkability to parks is determining how to work toward a unified goal through partnerships with local government agencies, nonprofits and community organizations. Such challenges stem from the lack of understanding on issues related to walkability.
Essential Elements of a Safe Route to a Park
There are five essential elements of an ideal safe route to a park; however, it is important to note that all the elements identified below are interrelated.
- Comfort: The conditions of the sidewalks and aesthetics are key factors to take into account when building a safe route to a park.
- Convenience: Pedestrian routes to parks should be in close proximity to where residents live. The route to the park should be no longer than a half of a mile (within a 10-minute walk) from where people reside.
- Safety: Physical separation boundaries are critical in establishing pedestrian safety. Separating pedestrian paths from roads with physical barriers is critical when building a safe route to a park so that pedestrians are not competing with automobiles.
- Access and Design: A safe route to a park must reflect various levels of mobility. Proper design benefits all users and allows all citizens to use safe routes to parks. All walkways at intersections must also be reviewed for ADA compliance. Ensuring multiple access points to parks is also important.
- The Park: A critical element to building a safe route to a park is the park itself. While all the above factors are indeed crucial, the park itself must offer the amenities that the surrounding population will use.
How to Begin Assessing Barriers to Walkability
There are three initial steps with which communities can begin assessing the barriers limiting walkability to parks:
1) Assessing Park Usage: The first step is to conduct a local needs assessment of the park to determine if it is meeting the needs of its community. Prior to implementing improvements on safe routes to parks, it is useful to know if residents are using the park, and if not, what the reasons behind that may be.
2) Walkability Audits: The second step is to conduct walking audits. Walking audits are a simple and systematic way to assess a community’s walkability to parks.
3) Community Focus Groups and Public Participation: Since perceived safety is an important determinant on whether residents will use routes to parks, it becomes important to hold community focus groups to gather feedback from residents on what improvements are needed for them to feel safe walking to parks.
While there are urban planning principles that encourage walkable communities, the planning and implementation process can be complex due to policy, design and budgetary factors. An initial approach to improving walkability to parks is to understand the obstacles limiting walkability to parks in every community and identify essential elements required for a route to be classified as safe. Prior to implementing improvements to pedestrian routes, it is important for communities to assess walkability to their local parks and build community awareness by publicizing the barriers limiting access to parks in their neighborhoods.
In a time when our nation is faced with health, economic, social and environmental challenges, the dialogue around safe routes to parks requires further attention and exploration. Together, we can create neighborhoods that easily and safely connect to parks because safe routes to parks are vital components in creating a sustainable future.
Rishma Parpia is a Research Consultant at The Research WorkRoom LLC.