The U.S. Surgeon General’s 2015 report Step It Up! The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities notes that just 22 minutes a day of physical activity, such as brisk walking, can improve your health. To encourage walking, the report recommends creating desirable destinations, such as parks, that are close to home and accessible by well-maintained sidewalks and pedestrian-friendly streets.
Why focus on improving walking routes to parks? In addition to being good for you, walking is an option that is available to most people. If people can walk to a park, then they can likely ride a bike or drive there. However, the opposite is not true. Distributing parks based on biking or driving distances excludes regular access for many people and reduces the health benefits they provide when they are walking destinations. Measuring walking access to parks is a good starting point to link parks with public health goals.
In collaboration with the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, the National Recreation and Park Association developed a Safe Routes to Parks action framework for local governments. An early step in the framework is to determine walking access to parks within the entire jurisdiction and for specific sites. An acceptable walking distance will vary for individuals based on their age, ability and health, and within different environments. A half mile has been recognized as the distance that most people are able and willing to regularly walk to a destination.
Five Rivers MetroParks Case Study
Five Rivers MetroParks (FRMP) in Dayton, Ohio, used the Active Living by Design measures as part of its Safe Routes to Parks program. FRMP wanted to understand how many residents live within a half mile of its parks, and more importantly, how many residents live within a half-mile walk route of each park. The measures provide objective, actionable data that can be used to identify park system gaps and where infrastructure changes will make a difference. By mapping areas that do and do not have park access, FRMP can identify the level of service that it provides across the jurisdiction and by demographic subpopulations. These data allow FRMP to compare the impact of projects and evaluate options for land acquisition and site development.
Several decisions were made before starting the analysis. First, the primary focus would be on parks controlled by FRMP. Second, it was assumed that all streets are walkable. Third, that the walk route service areas would be created using 100-meter buffers on both sides of the streets.
Measure 1– Proximity to Parks
According to the National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network (NEPHTN), 39 percent of people nationwide live within a half mile of a park boundary. FRMP also looked at data for the parks in its system and found that just over 15 percent of the county’s population (82,893 people) lives within a half mile of a FRMP park.
Measure 2 – Walking Access to Parks
Only 4 percent of the county’s population lives within a half-mile walk route to the entrance of a FRMP park. Future efforts might include working with other city and county agencies to identify park entrances for all parks in the county to obtain a better understanding of walking access.
Data from measures one and two allow FRMP to compare itself to other jurisdictions and to track progress over time.
Measure 3 – Park Connectivity
The percent of residents living within a half mile of a park boundary who also have a walk route under a half mile ranged from 0 percent for parks with no developed entrance to 78 percent for RiverScape MetroPark, which has multiple entrances and a connected street network.
The data and maps generated by measure three are particularly useful. For each of the parks studied, Table 1 shows (1) the population living within a half mile of the park boundary, (2) the population with less than a half-mile walk route to a park entrance and (3) the percent of those who live close to the park who have less than a half-mile walk route to an entrance. Similar data (not shown) were generated for demographic groups. Review of the data revealed parks with lower percentages and the greatest potential to improve park connectivity.
In addition, the maps created from this analysis provided a visual understanding of where residents who might benefit from a new entrance live (see graphs 1 and 2). Combined with street maps and aerial photography, the park connectivity maps help identify possible new entrances. The impact of the new entrances was tested by revising the network buffer and calculating how many more people would be able to access the park if additional entrances were constructed (shown in Table 1). FRMP identified 25 potential new entrances that could provide more than 10,000 additional residents with walking access to a park. This analysis also illustrated how physical barriers — highways, rail lines or rivers — can separate large populations from a park. In the future, FRMP could collaborate with other city and county agencies to review neighborhood street networks for opportunities to shorten route distances by making walkable connections and to improve the safety of routes by assessing the presence and quality of sidewalks and street crossings.
FRMP used the data generated by these measures to determine where additional park entrances could impact the greatest number of county residents. After identifying opportunities to improve walking access, walk audits with community members and partners are recommended to both field-verify site conditions and understand barriers. During the audits, environmental and community factors, such as typography, water flow, land use, condition of nearby property, park visibility and public safety should be evaluated. Street safety improvements can be an easy way to increase walking access. The walking audit should include an assessment of intersections, sidewalks and other street improvements within the adjacent neighborhood, as well as how people reach facilities once they are in the park.
The analysis can also be used to identify targeted geographic areas for rezoning and subdivision application reviews. Ideally, FRMP would be alerted by the Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission when it receives applications for sites that fall within the target areas. This process would provide FRMP opportunities to encourage the development of pedestrian-friendly streets adjacent to parks, connected streets leading to park entrances and improved pedestrian infrastructure in areas near parks.
FRMP tracks visitation to its parks using sensors and physical counts. Park users are also surveyed about their transportation modes and trip origination point. FRMP is considering adding questions to its survey about how users traveled to its parks to better understand how many people who drive to the park could walk if there were safe, attractive routes. It can also compare visitor count data over time to evaluate how adding new entrances affects overall park attendance.
These three park access measures are easy to use. They provide relevant, actionable data. They can be used to track progress, compare conditions, evaluate options, guide initiatives and inform the public. We have shared examples of how data can inform the decision-making process. FRMP planners liked that the data not only affirmed their understanding of park needs, but also identified additional opportunities. The agency’s marketing professionals were enthusiastic about having data to show taxpayers the impact of their dollars and maps to explain where and why new projects are needed. By using objective data, planners can make informed decisions that can improve many facets of park planning and illustrate the beneficial effect of parks on the community.
Note: This article expands on three of the Common Measures included in the Improving Public Health Through Public Parks and Trails: Eight Common Measures report. See the full metrics and detailed references.
Dee Merriam, RLA, FASLA, is a former Community Planner at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Eric Sauer is Planning Manager for Five Rivers MetroParks.
Ian Dunn is a GIS Analyst for CDC/ATSDR.
Tegan Boehmer is an Epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.