Emory Report
July 5, 2005
Volume 57, Number 34


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July 5, 2005
Mumford's public health study is a walk through the park

BY Michael Terrazas

Atlanta park-goers, be advised: In 12 DeKalb County parks this summer, the small phalanx of smiling, yellow-T-shirted students who may greet you upon entering the greenspace are not trying to sell anything. They just want to ask a few friendly questions about your physical activity. Oh, and they may ask to strap an accelerometer to your belt, if that’s OK.

The students are part of the project team for Neighborhood Parks and Active Living (NPAL), which itself is part of a larger park-use study funded last year by a $600,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The project is directed by Howie Frumkin, professor and chair of environmental and occupational health in the Rollins School of Public Health, and colleague Karen Mumford, director of research projects in Frumkin’s department.

NPAL’s goal, Mumford said, is to identify predictors of park use and physical activity. Such predictors may include dog ownership, proximity to parks or participation in organized sports. Her team of nine students is fanning out to the 12 parks under study, intercepting park visitors and asking them to participate. Those who agree are asked a series of questions about where they live (the study identified a tiered group of roughly concentric “catchment” areas around each park), their park use, and their level of physical activity. To more accurately measure the latter, participants also are asked to wear accelerometers for one week, noting their physical activity not only while in the park but throughout their daily lives.

“My wife and I walk in Mason Mill Park just about every day, basically for exercise and relaxation,” said Bryan Noe, interim dean of the graduate school, who was asked (and agreed) to participate in the study while on one of those walks. “This study should lead to recommendations for improvements to public parks that could prompt non-users to become users. Anything that can be done to improve the general health and well-being of urban populations has to be beneficial.”

To that end, the students also are collecting data from a control group of non-park-users, based on lists of addresses in the study’s catchment areas. Mumford’s goal is to recruit 50 participants (25 park users, 25 controls) for each of the 12 parks. Her team of students, both graduate and undergraduate, come not only from Emory but from Georgia State, Georgia Tech—one is even an Atlanta native home for the summer from Wellesley.

“This project really shows how Emory is out in the community,” Mumford said. “The students are getting very good field experience, and it’s interesting to hear the conversations they’re having with residents. Most people say, ‘I’m really busy, but OK, I’ll do this,’ and the survey is supposed to last 20 minutes, but typically it takes longer because study participants have a lot of questions and a lot to say about parks.”

To help relay that information to those who really need to hear it—local parks managers, for example—the project convened an advisory committee of local officials, such as Marilyn Boyd Drew, director of DeKalb County Parks and Recreation, and Mary Miller, director of Decatur’s Recreation and Community Services Department; citizen advocates, such as George Dusenbury, executive director of Park Pride; and public health officials, such as Ken Powell with the Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Branch at the Georgia Division of Public Health.

“We’re going to be working very closely with this group to make our findings relevant to the parks,” Mumford said. “One piece that’s very interesting is the concept of accessibility; we’ve got some parks that have wonderful amenities, are fairly well maintained, and have absolutely no connection to the neighborhoods in terms of pedestrian access.”

Indeed, the question of access helped determine the choice of parks to be studied. Most the 12 parks in the project have fairly well defined points of entry; the reason a place like Piedmont Park was not selected, Mumford said, was that its borders are so large and provide so many points of access that they would have made the student data collectors’ jobs much more challenging. Other factors, such as achieving demographic diversity, also figured into the choices.

“Communities have contributed considerable resources to creating parks, trails and greenspaces,” Mumford said, “but we don’t know very much about whether they actually serve as places where people are physically active.”