As we get closer to the next decade, a recent study shows that parks may play a more important in our lives than ever before.
This is the digital age. Americans are spending more time indoors on electronic devices.
According to a report prepared by the City Parks Alliance “Active Park, Healthy Cities,” the lack of physical inactivity is a major cause of illness and death. In fact, the study says 11% of deaths can be attributed to a lack of activity.
Yet, annually we spend $10,348 per person on health care and only $83 per person on city parks.
Spending more on city parks and getting people outdoors could change that equation.
The study suggests one of the main functions that park departments and city officials might want to conduct is measuring park usage.
As the old saying goes, “What gets measured gets managed.”
Here’s one of the bigger issues that measuring might confirm – most neighborhood parks are underutilized.
There is a program to measure park use. It’s referred to as SOPARC (Systematic Observation of Play and Recreation in Communities).
There is also technology being developed to get a better handle on park use. That technology includes ways to count how many people use a trail, a solar-powered bench that can track the number of cellphones within certain distances and how long people sit on park benches.
In addition, the research shows that parks that are well-used usually have a group that is an advocate for the park and works hard to keep the park safe, clean and filled with programs.
By increasing the number of people using (and enjoying a park), more of these groups may be organized.
Strategies to increase participation in parks
One way to fill those parks, the study suggests, is by offering programs for citizens.
Each supervised activity leads to a 48% increase in park use. That activity also leads to a healthier lifestyle for the citizenry.
Another option to increase the number of park visitors and enhance activity is design.
According to the study, designing a user-friendly park influences its use. For example, a park with a giant walking loop was found to attract 80% more users. Seniors love these loops and if one is built, is very likely to result in the doubling of use by the elderly.
In addition, just a simple walking loop can result in 90% higher rate of activity in the park.
The same goes for playgrounds. The study found that by just adding one new element, activity will increase by 50%.
Go digital to promote the benefits of spending time outdoors
Another key strategy is marketing and outreach.
Once a park adds a new program, walking trail or piece of playground equipment, they have to work hard to let people know these amenities are now available.
Remember, one of the major factors that parks compete with is our new digital lifestyle. Computers, tablets, internet, social media, streaming media. It’s a formidable array that competes for people’s attention.
Conversely, parks can use social media, email and other online tools to get the word out about improvements at a park. Traditional banners, posters, and signs still work as well.
The study found that parks who use these publicity techniques can see a 62% increase in the number of park participants. That also equates to a large increase in the physical activity of local citizens.
Sure, parks are sometimes overlooked when it comes to capital expenditures. Municipalities everywhere have a laundry list of pressing needs.
But nothing is more important than peoples’ health. Hopefully, this study can also be an effective tool for citizen groups to advocate for park improvements and maintenance.
In addition, we pointed out in earlier articles that research shows that parks, even linear parks such as the High Line in New York City or the Underline in Miami, can significantly increase property values and visitors. That translates into more tax dollars for a municipality.
Municipal officials might want to pay attention to the City Parks Alliance study and its recommendations. Improving parks and increasing participation is certainly an inexpensive way to help citizens become healthier.