2019 Parks Build Community Project Revisited

November 30, 2023, Feature, by Dianne Palladino, Ph.D., Aaron Hipp, Ph.D., and Austin Barrett, Ph.D.

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A closer look at park-use data four years after ABC Park’s grand opening

Beginning in 2009, NRPA’s Parks Build Community (PBC) project identified 11 parks in under-resourced communities in need of revitalization. PBC worked with partner and sponsor organizations and public officials to demonstrate the transformative value of parks and recreation in communities.

In 2018, construction broke ground for the ninth of these projects at ABC/Catherine Street Park (ABC Park) in Baltimore. Coinciding with the 2019 NRPA Annual Conference, the revitalized park’s grand opening occurred on September 22, 2019. To measure the impact of this project, generous financial support from BCI Burke Company supported a five-year evaluation of this park renovation from 2018 to 2023. This evaluation project recently concluded, and, despite challenges exacerbated by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, researchers reported several promising outcomes resulting from these efforts.

ABC Park renovations included the following:

  • Resurfaced basketball court
  • New swing sets
  • Various new play equipment
  • New exercise equipment
  • New spray pad
  • New benches
  • New building for restrooms, a water fountain and a small storage closet
  • Green infrastructure for stormwater

NRPA consulted with Aaron Hipp, Ph.D., and his graduate students at the North Carolina State University Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management and the local Carrollton Ridge Community, led by Derwin Hannah, to design an evaluation that would measure progress toward objectives and desired impact of the park renovation on the community. The final indicators included recreation, access, social capital, safety and economic development. The evaluation included data collection in 2018 prior to groundbreaking and four years of post-revitalization data collection — from 2019 to 2022 — at ABC Park and at a matched control park not undergoing renovations for comparison purposes.

The evaluation results included several bright spots, challenges and lessons learned.

Park Use

The new playground equipment — playsets, swings and basketball courts — appears to have encouraged park usage at ABC Park among youth ages 18 and under. Using 372 observations of 9,620 individuals at both ABC Park and the matched control park, evaluators found a notable increase in play-space use per hour by youth. This pattern started with a jump immediately following the revitalization that generally was sustained four years post-renovation.

Visit Duration and Frequency

Surveys of adults within a 10-minute walk from the park both before and after the park revitalization indicated that self-reported park-use frequency improved post-revitalization and that the renovations are drawing community members to the park more often. Despite not finding differences in the duration of visits to ABC Park after the renovation when compared to before, 100 percent of adults surveyed reported visiting the park at least once or a few times a week, compared to 59 percent before the project (a 41 percentage point increase improvement in visit frequency).

In addition, surveyed adults indicated increased social engagement and/or encouragement through a 29 percentage point increase in reports of visiting the park with a friend after the park renovation (pre: 21 percent; post: 50 percent).

Learning and Socialization

Surveys of adults in the immediate community provided evidence of improved perceptions of opportunities for children to learn or experience something new and meet, interact and play with somebody new. In total, about two-thirds of respondents stated that learning and playing opportunities existed within ABC Park.

Park Amenities and Facilities

The playground equipment upgrades in ABC Park are enjoyed by community members, as indicated by the park observations and a 37 percentage point increase in surveyed adult satisfaction ratings that rose to 100 percent post-revitalization.

Two renovations that resulted in improved ability for adults to supervise children in the park were the addition of adult fitness equipment next to the playground equipment and the relocation of the restroom and storage facility from the middle of the play space to the outer edge. This modification allowed for full sightlines across the playground.

Community members positively recognized other improvements related to park access. Surveys revealed improved ratings of the condition of sidewalks around the park, improved perceptions of crime-related safety and reduced concern about traffic around the park. New fences and improved sidewalks around the park entrances, along with the improved sightlines, likely contributed to these ratings.

Despite these positive community reports, the community expressed a few concerns related to bathrooms, relaxation areas and programming that contrasted with the enthusiasm toward this new and well-used park equipment. Park visitors expressed frustration about locked restrooms that did not open until 2022, nonworking water fountains and spray pads that were not activated.

Lack of programming and shade also concerned residents. Many respondents expressed disappointment in the lack of programming and events in the newly revitalized park to date. In addition, two old-growth oak trees were removed from the park to make room for expanded play spaces and the basketball court. Despite the addition of a covered picnic table, community members were disappointed in the reduced areas to picnic and relax after the renovation. This tree removal may have reduced shade, but as mentioned, the change improved sightlines near a four-way stop intersection.

Surrounding Property Values

Proximity to park and recreation areas is correlated with increases in property values. Hipp’s evaluation team calculated the property value (land plus improvements) for 2,236 properties within one-half mile of both ABC Park and the matched park in both 2018 and 2021, as property values are updated every three years in Baltimore. Property values in the neighborhood surrounding ABC Park increased an average of $6,227 (38 percent) from $16,498 to $22,722, representing about a $14 million property value increase for all properties within one-half mile.

In comparison, average property values in the neighborhood surrounding the matched comparison park increased an average of $4,724 (32 percent) from $16,610 to $21,334, $1,503 less than in the ABC Park neighborhood. In sum, the greater increase in property values around ABC Park compared to the matched park neighborhood is equivalent to $3.4 million more in property values.

Reported Crime

ABC Park also experienced decreases in reported crime against persons and property post-renovation to a greater extent than the control park. The neighborhood surrounding the park within one-half mile experienced a reduction of 67 reported crimes against persons per year from pre- to post-renovation, compared to a reduction of 21 reported crimes per year in the control park. Crimes against property also decreased by 150 reported crimes per year in the area surrounding ABC Park, compared to a reduction of 70 crimes per year in the control park area. While establishing this crime reduction as a direct result of the park renovation is not possible, this trend shows positive improvement in objective safety metrics post-revitalization.

Challenges and Limitations

In part resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, necessary adjustments to this evaluation plan and limitations of results are important to note. First, no data were collected between December 2019 and October 2020, the first full year after the park was opened. Because of these challenges, data were not always collected at the same time of year, as would be ideal for comparisons, but was a necessary adjustment.

Delays in some parts of the renovations also were extended by the pandemic. These delays caused notable frustration among community members. Importantly, park and recreation programs and services were not part of the PBC project (nor the evaluation), and the community recognized and lamented this lack of community programs in their revitalized neighborhood park.

Another challenge resulted from noticeable turnover in neighborhood residents. Many of the parents who talked to the evaluation team in 2021 and 2022 had not lived in the neighborhood prior to the park revitalization and could not comment on the changes since 2018. Those who could reflect on the time before the renovation were positive about the amenity upgrade. Unfortunately, those same people expressed a loss of community because of the reduction in programming at the park.

In short, combining physical park renovations with programs, services and maintenance can extend community benefits and bolster thriving gathering places for diverse community members. The last PBC site is Lynnbrook Park in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with current plans for completion in 2024.

Authors’ Note: Thank you to BCI Burke Company, the sole sponsor of this five-year evaluation of the 2019 Baltimore PBC project.

Dianne Palladino, Ph.D., is the Director of Evaluation at NRPA. Aaron Hipp, Ph.D., is Professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management and Associate Director of the Center for Geospatial Analytics at North Carolina State University. Austin Barrett, Ph.D., is the Senior Evaluation Manager at NRPA.