The median land area dedicated to park space in U.S. cities is 8.1 percent, according to a 2011 report from The Trust for Public Land [PDF]. How that 8.1 percent spreads itself out, though, varies from city to city – some with a handful of very large parks and others with many smaller parks. But according to a 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control, only one out of five children in the U.S. lives within a half-mile of a park or playground. For the playground advocacy group KaBOOM!, these numbers are troubling.
"Just like food deserts, there are play deserts," says Darell Hammond, founder and CEO of KaBOOM! "And one of the things we need to be able to understand better is if you have to be driven to a park, that means somebody who has a license and a car has got to get you there, which probably means you're not going to go as frequently."
To help understand the distribution of parks and the areas where access to them is low, KaBOOM! has launched a crowdsourced online park mapping effort. People can contribute to the map by adding the locations of parks and playgrounds in their neighborhoods, including images and information about the amenities the parks and playgrounds feature and ratings of their relative quality.
Hammond says the Map of Play effort is aimed at filling a gaping hole in the way cities understand and document their play spaces. Having such information will be critical for cities seeking to solve issues like childhood obesity or to identify places where formal play spaces are in need.
"Cities don’t even have complete data about where their parks are, or frankly, the current conditions of their parks," Hammond says. "So we've long been interested in how they could collect that data."
Tapping into the wisdom of volunteers, the map includes a variety of information on parks that cities often lack the people power or funding to collect.
"If we don't understand the quality, quantity and access to play opportunities, we're actually stabbing in the dark about solutions to a problem that we don't know how big it is," Hammond says.
The map currently includes about 89,000 partial or complete records of parks and playgrounds, but that's just a small portion of the overall picture. Hammond estimates there are about 750,000 playgrounds across the country. And while more than 30 parks have been added to the map in just the last week, many are generated by a relatively narrow group of dedicated super-users.
"I've personally added more than 40 parks to the map," says Diane Peterson. She's a mother of five from Colorado Springs, and she's been one of the more active contributors to the Map of Play. She thinks it's important to document parks as a way to help people to find and access what she calls the most important aspects of communities.
"I will probably continue to add parks, as long as there are parks to be added," Peterson says. "I wish I could do more."
Hammond believes that getting more people contributing to the map will help cities to better understand how their parks are meeting – or overlooking – the needs of their citizens. A complete database of park locations could be a valuable resource for policy makers.
"You can start to build visualization tools to help city councils and mayors to actually overlay park locations against things like race, population, health statistics, graduation rates, obesity statistics," Hammond says.
Cities would also be able to better identify where new parks may be needed, which Hammond says would help to ensure that there are fewer play deserts in cities. But the key to solving these sorts of problems is to have a rich set of data.
"Until we can understand and contextualize this a little better, we’re not making the smartest choices," Hammond says.