Beautiful green leafy park with people walking a dog over a bridge and stream

Kansas city residents Molly Young, left, and Theresa Young walk their dog in Loose Park.

Park Appraisal: when it comes to encouraging activity, not all parks are created equal. By Charles E. Reineke. Photos by Rachel Coward.
Two women walking dog in beautiful park area under leafy treesPark Appraisal
MULTIMEDIA
OUTDOORS AND ACTIVE

What does it take to make a public park exercise-friendly?

jacob l. loose park is one of the jewels of Kansas City’s parks system. There, on any sunny Sunday, one will find thousands of visitors enjoying what the park’s original patroness, Ella Loose, envisioned as a “restful retreat” from the clamor and chaos of a city that, in her time, was at the height of its tumultuous Jazz Age.

Today, in spite of the crowds, the park’s oak-shaded ponds, light-dappled lawns and serene gardens still serve urbanites seeking a tranquil getaway, just as Mrs. Loose intended. But, like successful city parks everywhere, it also attracts visitors whose idea of a “retreat” has little to do with rest. These trail-jogging, jungle-gym-climbing, Frisbee-chasing, tennis-ball-stroking, kite-flying, beanbag-tossing, splashpad-jumping, dog-walking, goose-chasing, swing-set-swinging patrons and their children have, over the years, made Loose Park a crucial outlet for the sorts of salubrious activities public health experts say most Americans could use more of.

Sonja Wilhelm Stanis, an assistant professor of parks, recreation and tourism at MU, has spent much of the previous three years studying how those who manage Kansas City, Mo.’s parks and recreation facilities might best maximize parks’ potential for hosting similar forms of physical activity. She’s determined that all the city’s parks have the capacity to encourage healthy behaviors, and that most are, in fact, doing a pretty good job of it. Still, her findings indicate some are doing better than others. And, perhaps not surprisingly, most of those parks in need of improvements are found in areas of Kansas City where low-income and minority citizens predominate. Helping these parks and others meet their potential is more than just a local concern. In a nation plagued by inactivity-related health problems, few areas of intervention may yield greater results than exercise-friendly improvements to community parks and recreation areas. Using parks to encourage sedentary kids and their parents to get out and get moving, in other words, could be a public health game changer.

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associating good parks with good health is nothing new in Kansas City. George Kessler, the visionary landscape architect who designed the city’s celebrated parks and boulevards system, was among those who spent the latter half of the 19th century arguing that exposure to “beautiful natural scenery” was essential to the physical and mental well-being of everyone, especially those city dwellers least likely to encounter it in their daily lives.

Man pitching a kickball during a game
Beautiful park scene with trees and bridge over stream
Beautiful park scene with large grassy areas and sidewalks

RECREATION AND RESTFULNESS

Top: Aaron Hlavacek “pitching” a kickball during a weekend practice at Gillham Park. Middle and Bottom: Views of Loose Park’s serene gardens and pathways.

The point seems obvious, even banal, today. But it wasn’t an easy sell for Kessler and his allies. The prevailing point of view among city council members, as captured by a Kansas City Times report in February 1872, was purchasing land for parks was sheer folly: “Sewers, street improvements, water-works, and other things [are] needed by the city before parks,” one member said. Given that Kansas City was then a gritty, mud-soaked metropolis-in-waiting, such sentiments were entirely understandable. Early working-class neighborhoods were haphazardly positioned warrens of tenement houses connected by unpaved, garbage-strewn streets. Household and “chamber” wastes ran into rudimentary sewers or, more often, into open ditches. Aside from a few grand businesses and homes for the wealthy, the entire town seemed little more than an overgrown frontier outpost.

Two civic leaders who saw beyond all this were William Rockhill Nelson, legendary editor and publisher of the Kansas City Star, and August Meyer, a metallurgist who made his fortune during the great Silver Rush in Leadville, Colo. Both men recognized that parks were more than just superfluous urban gilding. For them, parks served the dual purpose of increasing the desirability —¬†and value — of adjacent real estate, while at the same time providing rest and recreation for industrial workers desperately in need of a healthful break from squalor.

Through political pressure and tireless campaigning, Nelson and Meyer eventually persuaded the public that Kessler’s grand plan for a system of linked parks and boulevards — a plan that is today recognized as a foundational document in what became a national City Beautiful crusade — was the right thing for both working people and those who employed them.

“It’s really interesting,” says Wilhelm Stanis, “that whole idea of health and wellbeing was there from the very beginning. From [Fredrick Law] Olmstead to George Kessler and the others who were part of the early parks movement, the idea that parks contribute to health was there.”

These days, of course, Americans live and work in conditions that bear little resemblance to those of the 19th century. But, as we’ve seen, the health piece of the pro-park argument has become more relevant than ever. The challenge for researchers like Wilhelm Stanis is making that case in today’s data-driven public policy environment.

Early advocates like Nelson and Meyer took for granted that exposure to green grass and fresh air was good for park patrons —¬†especially those who spent long days working in feedlots and factories. “Parks’ health benefits were simply this underlying idea, something that they — and even a lot of contemporary parks and recreation professionals — had always just known, but hadn’t really documented.” Wilhelm Stanis says.

Until recently, park professionals typically used community meetings, public correspondence, questionnaires and other means to determine what “provision of activities” would be most desirable. They’d then build facilities to accommodate these pursuits. Now researchers like Wilhelm Stanis are providing data from sophisticated surveys, audits and geographic information system applications to help officials make more empirically grounded decisions, choices that include a science-based means of measuring potential benefits.

Today’s park managers are also using the data to question how a park’s provision of activities relates to its physical activity “outcomes.” Do the data show that this playing field encourages more activity among young adults? Might expanding that playground inspire physically active children to stay active for a longer period? Could better lighting make people feel more secure, and thus more likely to extend their potential exercise schedules?

“The value of the research has been to help us secure public input on the level of knowledge that the general public has regarding our system of parks, their desires to see the amenities they want in the park, and their perception of the level of safety of our properties,” said Mark McHenry, director of Kansas City Parks and Recreation, in an email.

Wilhelm Stanis, working alongside her colleague Andrew Kaczynski, now an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina, began collecting data on Kansas City parks two years ago. It started with a basic study aimed at determining what types of physical activities were happening in parks and who was engaging in them. Using a methodology called the System for Observing Play and Recreation in Communities, or SOPARC, they charted the activities of visitors, noting exactly where park visitors were active and in what kinds of ways. “We also did surveys and talked to park visitors to get a sense of some of their constraints, their interests, that type of thing,” Wilhelm Stanis says.

The data were informative but limited, leading the researchers to think bigger.

“We realized there was a need for a better tool to audit parks — and by audit parks I mean looking at environmental features that can facilitate or constrain park use specifically, in this case, physical activity,” says Wilhelm Stanis. “There are tools out there that have been designed for a research focus, but they are very time intensive and challenging to use. What we wanted to do was to create one that was user friendly, one that people in the community could use to become advocates for their own park facilities.”

Encouraging participation in decisions about how parks are outfitted and managed is important to researchers like Wilhelm Stanis and Kaczynski. Their hunch is that people are more inclined to use facilities they have a stake in, and that empowered communities can better identify and remedy activity-inhibiting “disparities” in access and amenities.

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in predominantly low-income and minority areas especially, Wilhelm Stanis says, arming park advocates with disparity data is key to achieving what researchers call “environmental justice.”

“From a parks standpoint, it means that all people should have an equal opportunity to access quality parks and facilities,” she says. It’s an elusive goal, one that researchers around the nation are just beginning to bring into the national conversation. “There has been some limited research looking at [park] disparities. But only a few of these have looked at differences by income and race-ethnicity, and most of those studies looked exclusively at access and availability. We wanted to take it a little bit further to look at park features and quality, because those are some characteristics of parks that have also been shown to influence physical activity.”

After a series of workshops and consultations with officials at Kansas City Parks and Recreation, she and Kaczynski, with funding from a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Active Living Research grant, developed an instrument they call the Community Park Audit Tool. CPAT is essentially an easy-to-deploy checklist that allows both researchers and trained community members to systematically gather information on a park’s features (basketball courts, fitness stations, splash pads, skate parks, and so on), its amenities (benches, water fountains, restrooms, picnic tables, etc.) and its accessibility and surrounding neighborhood (including roads, sidewalks, parking, safety and appearance).

When rendered in tabular form or coupled with geographical information systems mapping, the data have the potential to shine a light on disparities in a way that was never before possible. “As part of CPAT development,” says Wilhelm Stanis, “we started auditing parks in Kansas City and created a database of information; I think it was around 60 parks. That led us to think, “Well, we’ve already started looking at these parks; why not go ahead and look at them all?”

Basketball hoop and court
Festival-like activity in park with city in the background
Mother helping her toddler climb a structure in a playground

INVITATIONS TO ACTIVITY

Top: A hoop stands ready in Blue Hills Park. Middle: A playground in Loose Park. Bottom: Alonda Davis and her 8-month-old grandson, Isaiah, at a Gillham Park playground.

The resulting study, conducted with master’s degree candidate Katherine Vaughan from Kansas State University and published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine, employed CPAT to compile information from 219 Kansas City parks located in high, medium and low-income census tracks. They then used the data to analyze differences in park availability, features and quality while controlling for population density, ethnicity, age, and other variables.

The results were reassuring. Problems do exist, the research team found, but there were no “glaring disparities,” only “subtle, marked differences that should not go overlooked.” In lower-income tracts, for example, there were quality concerns arising from problems such as vandalism, litter, excessive noise and graffiti. There were also fewer “aesthetic features,” such as fountains and art. Perhaps the most distressing finding, at least from a physical-activity standpoint, involved playgrounds.

“We found that the high-income census tracts, or high-income neighborhoods, were more likely to have playgrounds than the low-income or medium-income tracts. That is certainly something to address and look at,” says Wilhelm Stanis. “Other research has shown that playgrounds are very important for physical activity among youth.”

Parks director McHenry says these results were pretty much in line with expectations. “Given that the oldest areas of the city are those that currently have the most challenges; i.e., the highest crime rates, oldest infrastructure, most depressed housing stock, [the findings were] somewhat expected.”

He adds that, after recent expenditures on playgrounds in these low-income areas, he was “somewhat surprised” that the researchers found fewer available. Going forward, he says, “our intent is to continue on with this strategy and try to develop more supportive partnerships with organizations or businesses in these same areas. That would make a huge difference in the level of maintenance and appearance, as well as increase the perceived safety of the parks.”

Wilhelm Stanis agrees, adding that disparities shouldn’t overshadow parks’ strengths. There were, she says, a lot of similarities between facilities and amenities in high- and middle-income parks and those of low-income-tracts. And because low-income tracts predominate in older sections of the city — the same urban core that Kessler and his cohort worked so hard to beautify — residents tend to live closer to parks than their wealthier neighbors. Closer doesn’t always mean better, of course, and the researchers agree that many minority- and low-income-tract parks could use sprucing up. But Wilhelm Stanis is optimistic that their plentiful “green space and resources” will be a physical-activity asset in the future.

Among their other findings: parks in low- and high-income areas had a higher proportion of adjacent sidewalks than those of medium-income areas, —“Sidewalks are important predictors of how easily and safely residents can access resources in their neighborhood,” Wilhelm Stanis says — and that parks in high minority areas had fewer walking trails and more basketball courts. Aside from these differences, however, “None of the other park facilities in our study differed by income or race and ethnicity, which is encouraging from an environmental justice standpoint.”

Even more encouraging was the effectiveness of CPAT in helping Wilhelm Stanis and her colleagues to draw these data-based conclusions. Already its use is growing, aiding experts and activists around the nation in evaluating their own communities’ ability to leverage parks’ activity-boosting, obesity-busting potential. “It’s important to know what’s in parks, not just that there is a park,” she says. “Moving forward, using tools like CPAT to engage the community in addressing health concerns is going to be the most effective way of promoting physical activity.”

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