Evaluating the 2019 Parks Build Community Project

November 17, 2022, Feature, by J. Aaron Hipp, Ph.D., Kat Deutsch, Christopher Dunstan, Jared Jones and Scott Ogletree

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Combining traditional and new evaluation methods to support this important park and recreation story

The 2022 NRPA Annual Conference in Phoenix, Arizona, marked three years since the grand re-opening of Catherine Street Park to kick off the 2019 conference in Baltimore, Maryland. Those associated with the 2019 Parks Build Community project at Catherine Street Park want to better understand how, or not, the renovations of the park support activity in the park and community well-being around the park.

Through Parks Build Community, Catherine Street Park received all new playground equipment, including five distinct play areas and fitness equipment, in addition to a resurfaced basketball court; new splash pad; and updates to restrooms, water fountains, picnic tables, benches, fencing and signage. Drainage also was improved on the multi-sports field. Catherine Street Park is approximately one-half of a city block in size.

Evaluating the Site

NRPA, in collaboration with North Carolina State University Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management and the Center for Geospatial Analytics, has been evaluating use of Catherine Street Park since 2018. Two key pieces of this evaluation featured a community survey and the use of secondary data. The survey asked park users and neighbors about park-based activities and with whom they visit the park; satisfaction with park spaces, facilities and safety; and questions about safety and walkability in accessing the park from the surrounding neighborhood. Secondary data is collected by others but can be of use in evaluation — as in the data that has a secondary purpose or is provided by a secondary group separate from those who originally collected and managed the information. Here we used reported crime data from the Baltimore Police Department and mobile phone data collated through a company providing publicly-available mobility data to university researchers during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

With this third evaluation update on Catherine Street Park, we focused on survey results, changes in reported crime, and changes in observed park use via mobile phone presence in parks. For crime and park use data, we compared Catherine Street Park to a matched park nearby. The parks and their neighborhoods were matched, or determined to be similar, based on the size of the parks, amenities within the parks, and demographics of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Survey Updates

As of May 2022, more than 80 community residents have completed a two-page survey on park use, satisfaction, perceptions of safety and park accessibility. Surveys have been collected within Catherine Street Park by canvassing the neighborhood, through Baltimore Recreation and Parks’ social media posts, and via quick response (QR) codes provided to park visitors. The first surveys were collected during 2019 while the park was closed for the renovation. Post-renovation surveys were collected in fall 2020 and spring 2022, with no surveys collected during the first seven months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Surveys are great at measuring the experience of park users, or potential park users who live within a 10-minute walk of the park. Our survey also provided space for any additional written comments. All respondents were over the age of 18.

The survey asked the community about the duration and frequency of visits to Catherine Street Park. There was no difference after the renovation in the duration, or length, of visits to the park. However, 100 percent of those surveyed after the renovation stated they visited the park at least four times per month, compared to only 59 percent visiting this frequently prior to the park improvements. Renovations are inviting people to the park more often, which is the desired result. This is a positive result, as one of the largest barriers to park use is simply getting families to the park in the first place. What’s more, participants reported they were more likely to visit with a friend in the park following the renovation. This may suggest social encouragement in going to the park or perhaps even meeting new neighbors once in the park.

Through the survey, we also asked about opportunities for adults and kids to learn or experience something new and the opportunity to interact with someone new. The results of these questions were not statistically different between 2019 and post-renovation, though there were slight improvements. There was a 9 percent increase in the number of respondents stating the park gave their child opportunities to learn or experience something new and a 3 percent increase in the opportunity to meet, interact and play with someone new. In total, approximately two-thirds of respondents stated that these opportunities existed within Catherine Street Park, again supporting the positive benefits of the play space.

In terms of satisfaction with park amenities and facilities, 100 percent of survey respondents reported satisfaction with the playground equipment following the updates, compared to only 63 percent prior to the installation of new equipment. The five new pieces of playground equipment are being enjoyed. There also was an increase in the satisfaction with adult supervision in the park after renovations. We believe this is related to two improvements. First, adult fitness equipment placed next to the playground equipment allows parents and caretakers to exercise while their children are playing on the playground. Second, the restroom and storage facility were removed from the middle of the play space and relocated to the outer edge, allowing full sightlines across the playground. During our visits to Catherine Street Park, we observed the improved sightlines in action, especially during cooler months. We spoke with parents who stay in their vehicles while their kids burn off post-school energy on the playground. The parents remain nice and warm in the car while the kids enjoy the park.

There was an increase in the satisfaction with water fountains and restrooms, but this satisfaction only increased by 5 percent. Three separate people brought up the bathrooms being locked or water fountains not working in their comments. These amenities not being open or on has been the case during each of our own evaluation visits to the park. It should be noted there were delays in completing the restroom facility, then the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the restrooms remained unopened during our May 2022 visit to the park.

Additional areas of needed improvement highlighted in the survey include shade and programming. To make room for the expanded play spaces and basketball court, two old growth oak trees were removed from within the park. There is now one covered picnic table, but respondents still reported reduced satisfaction in places to picnic and relax after the playground improvements. Additionally, eight separate respondents mentioned the lack of programming and events in the notes section of the survey. It also has been mentioned to the evaluation team anecdotally that the playground equipment is appreciated and used, but the neighbors are now hopeful for the return and expansion of programs and events in the park space. This desire is supported by the recent Community Preventive Services Task Force recommendation that “park, trail and greenway infrastructure improvements be combined with additional improvements, such as structured programs to increase physical activity”. Again, this is a noted opportunity for improvement. The park equipment is nice, new and well used. But, the other pieces that make a park successful — programming, bathrooms, cleanliness (no change over time) — have room for improvement.

The final section of the survey focused on accessing the park. Overall, there were significant reported improvements in the condition of the sidewalks around the park, improvements in the perception of safety related to crime, and reduced concern about vehicular traffic near the park. The sidewalks were improved around the entrances to the park, as well as new fencing near the play spaces. Again, the redesign of the park may have removed trees for shade, but it improved sightlines, especially near a four-way stop intersection. The removal of the two oak trees appears to have had some costs (shade and relaxation/picnic areas) and some benefits (sightlines, safety within and just exterior to park).

Secondary Data

The secondary data used in this evaluation continually supports this story. Through the Baltimore Police Department’s website, we can download every reported crime within a half mile of Catherine Street Park, and the matched or control park for comparison. This data is available back to 2018. It should be noted these only include reported crimes; not unreported crimes, nor reported crimes that end up not being classified as crimes (e.g., charges not pressed, court acquittals).

Comparing the number of annual crimes in 2018-2019, prior to renovation, to 2020-2022, and accounting for changes in crime around the matched park show the renovation of Catherine Street Park is associated with 10 fewer personal or violent crimes per year and 30 fewer property crimes per year within one-half mile of the park. In total, both parks and neighborhoods saw reductions in crimes, but the reduction was greater around Catherine Street Park. Being able to compare the reduction at Catherine Street Park to the matched park and neighborhood is important, as it can take into account city-wide crime reduction efforts, along with pandemic-related crime trends. Personal or violent crimes are between persons (e.g., assault). Property crimes involve only one person directly (e.g., theft). Both types of crimes also showed annual trends decreasing with the exception of personal crimes rising during 2019 — the same year the park was closed for renovations. It is key to note that both perceptions of crime and safety and actual reported crimes have moved in positive directions for the Catherine Street Park neighborhood since 2018-2019.

Finally, during the pandemic, several companies have allowed broader use of their data due to restrictions in the collection of other, in-person evaluation data. One example of restrictions was our inability to travel to Baltimore and survey park users between March and December 2020 due to travel and physical distancing restrictions. To overcome this barrier, we worked with a company providing the number of monthly, unique mobile phone visits to points of interest in the United States. Both Catherine Street Park and our matched park are in this dataset. Thus, we have monthly visits of unique mobile phones (not the phone numbers, just the total number of phones that were in the park) to each park between January 2018 and July 2022.

We have only used summer month data (June to August) as the matched park was adjacent to a school and shows significant increase in mobile phone presence during the academic year (i.e., parents waiting in the park for kids to be released from school, or families traversing park at school release). Looking at the difference between 2018-2019 compared to 2020-2022, and taking into account increases at the matched park, Catherine Street Park had 13 additional unique park visitors per month following the renovation. This increase does not take into account repeat visits, but the above survey data supports that there is also a significant increase in the frequency of repeat visits. Mobile phone data is limited to those with phones on their person while in the park, and thus, is generally limited to teenagers and older park users, though inclusive of parents and older siblings.

Overall, our evaluation continues to find positive associations with the improvements in Catherine Street Park, especially as associated with the actual play spaces. There is indeed continued room for improvement, specifically related to programming, shade, restrooms and water fountain facilities. There are noted and important increases in use and satisfaction with the park and play spaces. This, in turn, increases the need for restrooms and opportunities to further engage families in recreation and activities through associated programs and events. The combination of survey data, with open-ended comments at the end, and the use of secondary data, help provide further context and reliability to our findings. We believe our evaluation findings support the renovations to Catherine Street Park, as well as highlight opportunities for continued improvements to increase park use and support community wellness.

J. Aaron Hipp, Ph.D., Kat Deutsch, Christopher Dunstan, and Jared Jones are with the North Carolina State University Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management and Center for Geospatial Analytics. Scott Ogletree is with the University of Edinburgh.