January 20, 2004

Researchers awarded $600K to study park use

By Ron Sauder

Why are some urban parks well-worn with use, while others sit empty? Why do some people head for a neighborhood park every chance they get, while others never go? Why do some park visitors jog, swim or engage in other forms of vigorous exercise, while others sit and feed the pigeons?

A group of Georgia researchers headed by Howie Frumkin, professor and chair of environmental and occupational health in the Rollins School of Public Health, has been awarded a grant of nearly $600,000 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) to study urban neighborhood parks as a setting for physical activity. Active Living Research, a national program supported by RWJF, selected the research team as one of seven new grantees studying relationships between the built environment and physical activity levels.

Drawn from Emory, the University of Georgia, Georgia State, Georgia Tech and the CDC, the researchers share an interest in promoting daily physical activity as a means of combating America’s twin national epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

“This very interesting project illustrates the marriage that is occurring between the public health community and those who design, build and manage the built environment—including parks,” Frumkin said. “It is increasingly clear that we have common interests and objectives that can best be achieved by working together.”

Parks can be important sites for physical activity, especially in cities, because they offer facilities for walking, running, swimming and playing games such as soccer and basketball that may not be possible in any other venue. However, the researchers say, many barriers—ranging from inconvenient entrances to uninviting pathways, to poor scheduling of group activities and the perceived fear of crime—can cause potential users to steer clear of parks.

By focusing on 15 parks in DeKalb County and conducting controlled studies of both users and non-users selected from surrounding neighborhoods, the researchers hope to learn how various design features play out in parks’ relative popularity and visitors’ relative activity levels. They are especially interested in user differences related to ethnic minority status, gender and age.

The study’s first year will be devoted to observational analysis of the 15 parks, which have been chosen to represent a variety of features including income level and ethnic mix of their surrounding neighborhoods; facilities and amenities; proximity to mass transit or highways; and reported crime rates.

In the second year, research volunteers will be recruited from the communities served by the parks. Active users of parks will be paired with control subjects who do not typically use parks, and their respective physical activity levels will be monitored for seven-day study periods by accelerometers, a type of pedometer worn on the hip that gauges physical movement.

Ultimately, the researchers will make policy recommendations for both new and existing parks. The project’s advisory committee includes the director of DeKalb County Parks and Recreation, the director of City of Decatur Parks and Recreation, and up to 11 additional representatives from EDAW Inc., PEDS (Pedestrian Advocacy), Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites, PEQ (Planners for Environmental Quality), Georgia Division of Public Health, Park Pride, DeKalb commissioners and its planning director, and Peter Hand and Associates, as well as interested citizens.

Lance Waller, associate professor of biostatistics, is an Emory colleague of Frumkin’s on the research team. Active Living Research is RWJF’s $12.5-million, national program created to stimulate and support research that will identify environmental factors and policies that influence physical activity.