The benefits of spending time in parks are well-documented. And as anyone who has struggled for a square inch of grass to lay down their picnic blanket at Parc Lafontaine or woven between thousands of cyclists and pedestrians on the Vancouver Seawall knows, big signature parks generally have no problems attracting users.
But for the vast majority of urban-dwellers, trips to large parks are an occasional treat. It is the smaller neighbourhood parks dotted throughout our cities that are the backbone of the park system. These parks are often simply designed, with limited amenities. But since these smaller neighbourhood parks are the green spaces that are most often within walking distance of where we live, are there ways we can maximize their benefits to the community?
What the data tells us about neighbourhood parks
The researchers behind the U.S. National Study of Neighbourhood Parks were intent on finding out. They looked at how neighbourhood parks were actually being used, and by whom, in U.S. cities with populations of 100,000 or more. Neighbourhood parks were defined as 3- to 20-acre parks used mostly by people in the immediate vicinity and managed by city parks and recreation departments.
Data collectors used the SOPARC methodology to observe park users in different areas. SOPARC is a direct observation tool for assessing park and recreation areas, including park users’ physical activity levels, gender, activity modes/types, and estimated age and ethnicity groupings (Active Living Research). The researchers also interviewed adult park users and surveyed city park staff about their management practices. One of their goals was to figure out what park amenities seemed to increase or decrease park usage among different groups of people.
Their compelling results can help shape how we invest in parks:
- Who’s not in parks: Researchers found that neighborhood park use was especially low among adults, seniors and younger women. While seniors make up 20% of the general population, they represented only 4% of the people using neighbourhood parks. Parks were used less in low-income than in high-income neighborhoods. This difference was largely explained by fewer supervised activities and less marketing/outreach efforts. That’s why work by community groups and municipalities to animate parks in underserved areas is so vital.
- Meet the basic needs: They also found that adding water fountains and washrooms more than doubles park use. These are more expensive investments (both up-front and in terms of maintenance), but it’s no surprise that having them helps people spend much longer periods of time in the parks.
- What gets people active: The facilities that generated the most activity among adults and seniors were walking loops. Parks were twice as likely to be empty if they didn’t have walking loops.
- Add programs: Programming for people of different ages was associated with 37% more hours of activity in parks by local residents.
- Spread the word: Better marketing, including signage, posters and bulletin boards, was associated with 63% more hours of activity.
Three proven low-cost ways to increase park use:
If you work with a municipality, non-profit or community organization looking to get more people into our parks, here are three ideas for how you could use this data to make the most impact:
- Invest in great signage and bulletin boards: The data is clear – welcoming and informative signage is one of the most cost-effective ways to dramatically increase park usage. Although great signage isn’t free, it’s a lot less than a new play structure or washroom building and can make a big impact, correlating with a 62% increase in park activity according to the study.
- Create programming targeted to people who are not in the park: Park People recently launched a walking program aimed at newcomers, older adults and seniors in Toronto’s suburbs. One participant (full disclosure – my mother-in-law!) made immediate connections with other walkers, including a Spanish-speaking senior who was delighted to have someone to talk to in Spanish, and a woman who lived a few streets over that she had never met. The physical and emotional benefits of spending time in parks are significant, and simple programming, combined with amenities such as walking loops, can make a tremendous difference in addressing the under-use of parks among seniors, girls, and adults, as identified in the study.
- Bring existing programming into parks: Who says the offerings of a recreation centre or social agency have to stay within four walls? Municipal park departments and community groups can work with these organizations to bring arts, recreation and health programming into the park, attracting new users while providing the enhanced benefits of green space to existing participants.
Many cities are already taking these findings to heart by investing in new signage, targeting new populations in their programming, and bringing existing programs into the parks.
Both the City of Toronto and the City of Edmonton are making major investments in new way-finding signage, while large urban parks like Vancouver’s Hastings Park and Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Forest are developing unique visual identities that are both beautiful and useful.
In Richmond Hill, the Artist in Residence pilot program provided an artist with an opportunity to develop new work to animate and engage residents in six public spaces. This program echoes the successful Arts in the Parks initiative in Toronto, which Park People has helped the Toronto Arts Council bring to 35 parks over the past two years.
We are also seeing the expansion of the SOPARC methodology into Canada. The Vancouver Park Board is using it, with tweaks to suit the local context, to collect park user data as part of their VanPlay strategy, a new 25-year parks and rec master plan.
SOPARC is open and free for anyone to use – you can even find training for the data collectors on YouTube. I would love to see how people are adapting it to help them better understand usage in their own parks, and whether a simplified version could help community groups gather data about their parks and build the case for investments.
Meanwhile, Park People will continue to explore ways to make use of park data and to support community and city-led initiatives to improve our neighbourhood parks. If you know of projects happening across Canada that we can showcase and support, please let us know.