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Walkability — not proximity — is key to whether people use parks and other neighborhood green spaces, study finds

MinnPost file photo by Steve Date
Access to green space has been found in many previous studies to have the potential to promote physical activity and improve health and wellbeing.
People are unlikely to visit their neighborhood park often unless they perceive the park to be easy and safe to get to on foot, according to a study published online recently in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning.

In fact, it’s walkability rather than distance from a park that determines whether residents will use it — or other types of green space — frequently, the study suggests.

“This was surprising because oftentimes we assume that people living close to a park are more likely to visit the park and benefit from this use,” said Adriana Zuniga-Teran, the study’s lead author and an assistant research scientist at the University of Arizona’s College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture, in a released statement.

The study’s findings underscore the importance of considering walkability when creating green spaces in existing or new neighborhoods.

Access to green space — defined in this study as “any vegetated space from parks, sport fields, golf course, school fields, or gardens” — has been found in many previous studies to have the potential to promote physical activity and improve health and wellbeing.

Zuniga-Teran and her colleagues wanted to explore the role that perceptions of neighborhood walkability play in the frequency of green space use. They also wanted to see if those perceptions were different for neighborhood residents who regularly use such spaces versus those who don’t.

In-depth interviews

For the study, the researchers surveyed 103 users of the Rillito River Park in Tucson, Arizona, as well as an additional 309 residents of two adjacent neighborhoods, including a high-density one. The park was selected “because it has many amenities and infrastructure including bicycle paths, dirt trails, parking, restroom facilities, and drinking fountains,” the researchers explain. It is also a linear park that connects with other green spaces in the region.

Due to these features, Rillito River Park “offers insights that can be applicable elsewhere in the city [of Tucson] and in comparable cities,” the researchers write.

The surveys revealed that people who said their primary way of getting to the park was on foot were 3,500 times more likely to use the green space daily than those who said they drove to the park. Proximity to the park, however, was not associated with how often people visited it.

“In other words, the respondents did not indicate that their frequency of greenspace visitation was related to how close they lived to greenspace,” the researchers write.

Safety and sense of community

The major factor in whether people perceived that the park was easy to walk to had to do with traffic safety.

“Let’s say you live in front of a huge park, but there’s this huge freeway in the middle,” Zuniga-Teran explains. “You’re very close, but just crossing the major street, you might need to take the car and spend a long time in that intersection.”

In that situation, people probably wouldn’t visit the park frequently, despite living near it, she says.

But busy roads weren’t the only barriers. The way some neighborhoods are designed — with many cul-de-sacs or dead-end roads, for example — can also keep residents living near a park from easily accessing it on foot, the study found.

“We might think we are designing walkable neighborhoods, but people might not feel like that,” says Zuniga-Teran.

The study also identified two additional factors that influence people’s use of neighborhood green spaces: their sense of community (“how many opportunities for social interaction exist within a neighborhood”) and their perception of surveillance (“how well residents inside buildings can see outside into the neighborhood”).

“When residents perceived high levels of community in their neighborhoods, they were more likely to visit greenspace weekly, and less likely to visit greenspace only monthly or yearly,” the study reports.

Residents were also more likely to visit the nearby park, the study found, if homes in their immediate neighborhood had front porches and were set close to the the street and if larger residential buildings had front doors and windows that face the street.

Limitations and implications

The study was small and involved people living near a single park in a single American city, so it’s unclear how applicable the findings may be to other communities.

Still, the findings are in line with other research that has identified walkability as a factor that influences people’s use of parks and other green spaces.

“By directing efforts to increase not only the availability of greenspace throughout cities but also the level of walkability in surrounding neighborhoods — particularly traffic safety, surveillance, and community — urban planners are likely to contribute to healthier communities,” Zuniga-Teran and her co-authors conclude.

FMI: The study can be read in full at Landscape and Urban Planning’s website.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/13/2019 - 10:25 am.

    I lived in suburban St. Louis, MO, for about 45 years, and did so without exercising at all – at least not consciously – until I retired. As a lad, of course, I was physically active anyway, and I lived on a farm through high school, doing all the usual farm work, which kept me skinny and very much in shape.

    Once out of college, working and married, all that pretty much went away. I played golf occasionally, and for a couple years, played handball, which was plenty strenuous, but those things were once-a-week activities at most, not something to be done daily. Over the years, I stopped taking part in both.

    Then I retired and moved to Colorado, where, for 5 years, the city I lived in took great pride in the wide paved trail they’d built along the length of the river that bisected the city from west to east, and a similar trail was being built around the city’s perimeter. For 5 years, I was walking 4 miles a day precisely because it was convenient aesthetically pleant along the river, and safe, if not always as flat as my current Minneapolis neighborhood.

    I spent 7 years in metro Denver, in a suburban neighborhood with much more up-and-down terrain, but that was equally devoted to wide, convenient, well-built trails that were often part of linear parks. I used them virtually every day. I also took up hiking, since the Front Range foothills were, literally, next door, and a high country trailhead was usually less than an hour’s drive from my front door.

    Then the grandchildren drew me to Minneapolis. I ended up buying a house about 200 yards from the paved trail(s) along Shingle Creek, in the city’s far northwest corner. That location was largely an accidental choice, but I’ve benefitted from it, nonetheless. Age has slowed me to the point where the daily walk is now only 2 miles instead of the 4 miles of 25 years ago, but it’s still a daily walk, and on days when I’m feeling especially energetic, I’ve devoted 90+ minutes to walking a 5-mile loop that takes me along the creek to the river near the Camden bridge, north on the river’s west bank, and then back home.

    I concur with the study’s conclusions. Proximity certainly helps, but the primary reason why I’ve remained a daily walker is that the trails are accessible, feel safe at pretty much any hour, are maintained during the winter, and are visible from dozens of homes along the creekside route they follow. The urban forest along the creek also helps during the growing season, as both an aesthetic benefit and a physical one – the shade is welcome on a hot day.

  2. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 08/13/2019 - 12:58 pm.

    I want to walk on the trail in the picture. Anyone recognize it?

    • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 08/13/2019 - 02:30 pm.

      This is Minnehaha Creek just below the falls, one of Minnesota’s most popular tourist attractions. It’s a great walk from the falls down to the Mississippi River.

  3. Submitted by Mike Davidson on 08/17/2019 - 07:35 pm.

    I live in Stevens Square and we have a small park. I’m also within walking distance to Loring Park and the park across the street from MIA. One of the many reasons I love living where I do … walking distance to parks.

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