Study Finds Seniors, Women Less Likely to Use Parks
By Dave Ramont
In the spring and summer of 2014, the RAND Corporation sent observers into 174 neighborhood parks in 25 cities with 100,000 or more residents, with the goal of learning how people used the parks. They developed methods for the study to count users and document characteristics such as age and gender. They also observed park use, park-based physical activity, and park conditions and offerings during a typical week. The study concluded that neighborhood parks, along with their programmed activities, are geared more toward youths, limiting their use by adults and seniors. The study also found that younger females were less likely to use the parks, with females representing only 40 percent of children and 35 percent of teens observed. And females of all ages were less likely to play any organized sports and were more sedentary than males.
Dr. Deborah Cohen, the study's lead author and a senior natural scientist at RAND, said, "Our nation's public parks have much unmet potential to be a center of physical activity for adults, older Americans and females. It appears possible to increase physical activity among adults, seniors and females by making modest investments in facilities and programming."
The study reveals that current investment in urban neighborhood parks nationally is relatively small. The annual average per capita spending for parks among the nation's 100 largest cities was $73 in 2013, according to The Trust for Public Land.
Researchers found that most neighborhood parks have few programmed activities targeted to adults and seniors. Seniors represented only 4 percent of park users, but 20 percent of the general population. "It's really sad that so few seniors are using our public parks," Cohen said. "We need to make changes to attract older people to parks to exercise and stay active, especially with the increasing rates of chronic diseases among older people and as our nation's population grows older." Adding things like walking loops and classes geared to older people could attract many more older users to the parks, the study concluded.
Also as part of the study, senior administrators from the park systems were interviewed and it was found that none regularly measured park use—other than tracking things like registration for specific programs or sports leagues—saying they lack the resources to do so. Cohen said that "Parks and recreation departments have not had any metrics to adequately report who is using their facilities. The tools we created for this project are now being used by researchers across the United States and could help park managers better understand who is using their facilities."
The study also found that park use was lower in higher-poverty neighborhoods, even though their facilities were similar to those in higher-income areas, likely due to providing fewer supervised activities and lack of marketing and outreach efforts.
The RAND Corporation is a non-profit research organization committed to helping make communities safer, healthier, and more prosperous. They believe these findings can guide future park investments and management practices to improve over-all population health.