This article appeared in the July/August issue of Athletic Business. Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.
Deborah Cohen is a doctor with a simple and affordable prescription for America's obesity epidemic: park visits. The Santa Monica, Calif.-based physician who specializes in public health and preventive medicine has been studying the role of parks in physical activity for 13 years, and she was lead author on the first national study on park usage, released in May by the Rand Corporation, where she serves as senior natural scientist. The study dispatched observers to 174 parks in 25 U.S. cities of 100,000 or more residents and estimated that parks see an average 20 visitors per hour, with 75 percent of parks observed experiencing no visitors at all. AB senior editor Paul Steinbach asked Cohen to explain the findings.
What inspired you to examine park use?
One of the most important behaviors in order to stay healthy — to live longer and in better condition — is physical activity, and parks are a natural place where people can engage in physical activity free of charge. We're spending more than $9,000 per person for health care annually. What are we spending on parks? Less than $90 per person. We're spending next to nothing compared to what we're spending on the consequences of people not exercising.
Did anything surprise you?
We've been looking at parks in different areas, mainly Los Angeles, so we had some idea of what was happening here, and we were surprised that parks were so much more underutilized in many places. We had thought that they were poorly used in many places here, but the situation might not be as good in other parts of the country.
What factors dictate higher park usage?
Population density is important, and park size is important. The bigger the park, the more people we would usually see. Facilities are very much related to that, too. The more things that are there at the park to serve different groups, the more people we see in the park. And having organized activities, supervised activities, programming — that was a very powerful predictor of the number of people who use the park. And also marketing — letting people know that there's something there that they might be interested in through announcements, banners, fliers and posters in the park.
Which amenities make a park attractive?
We found that just having a walking path was associated with much higher use of the park. There was a park — it was only one, so I don't know if this is generalizable —had pickleball. There were more seniors in that park.
How do you account for low park usage?
I think in general there's insufficient funding for parks and recreation in our cities across the country. If we don't invest in our parks, people aren't going to want to go to them. Administrators are hamstrung. A lot of them are just keeping up with maintenance and they don't have resources to do more than that. It's the other things — the programming and so on — that are more important than maintenance. But people look at these things superficially and they don't realize that parks are for people. They're there to be used, and people need to use them to stay healthy.
Does park renovation lead to more use?
Actually, for the parks we studied in Los Angeles, it does not. They spent a lot of money — they built new gyms — but what happened at the same time, they had budget cuts, and they cut the hours and the staffing and the programming. So having a new facility just by itself isn't going to increase the park use. You know, there's all these other things. The programming is really important and so if that's cut the benefit from the new facility is gone. We've studied park renovations in San Francisco, where they have very small parks that they totally redid, and those had very positive effects on park use. They increased use by five- to six-fold. Some of the parks were in very poor neighborhoods that had been considered dangerous and so when they redid things, they just made it friendlier for everyone in the community, and so I think use increased because of that. They felt it was safer, better vision, better lighting. The new facilities were very attractive. They just added very innovative play equipment.
Where do we go from here?
I'm hoping populations will say, "We should spend more money on our parks," and change some of their priorities — maybe agree to an extra tax so that their parks could offer more. Parks are competing with all these other demands for our leisure time — television, computers, movies. There's just so much to do that's exciting that makes you sit inside. But there's so much benefit from being in parks. It's not only physical activity, but socializing, being out in the sun. There's all kinds of good things that a lot of people are missing out on.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Athletic Business with the title "If we don't invest in our parks, people aren't going to want to go to them."