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
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
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