Children run in Central Park. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Parks are the domain of the very young. As a new study points out, that’s a problem.

Stroll through an average American neighborhood park on a clear spring evening and you’re likely to encounter plenty of kids, mostly boys. You’re extremely unlikely to see adults actually exercising, or seniors of any kind.

That’s not merely anecdotal. These are a few of the findings of a first-of-its-kind, national study of urban park use by the RAND Corporation. In a multi-part survey of 174 neighborhood parks across 25 major U.S. cities, researchers observed that children represented about 38 percent of weekly park use, despite making up just 18 percent of the general population. Boys 12 and under also got far more exercise in parks than other groups did, including girls of the same age. And though seniors represent 20 percent of the general population, they only represented four percent of total park users, and spent a marginal amount of time engaged in exercise.

It might not come as a surprise that urban parks are the domain of the very young. But at a time when physical activity has never been more critical, that’s a problem.

“Parks could offer some benefits to counter the forces that interfere with people staying healthy,” says Deborah Cohen, the study’s lead author and a senior natural scientist at RAND. Older adults are particularly threatened with chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. “They could stem or reverse some of the damage [of those diseases] in a shorter time by becoming active,” Cohen says. Parks could help. And that’s to say nothing of the heaping mountain of evidence demonstrating the psychological benefits of access to green space.

And yet, urban parks are barely reaching their full audience potential. In an ideal world, they would be able to build their way out of this problem. A handful of U.S. cities have had success attracting older people to “intergenerational parks,” which often include low-impact exercise equipment intended for the 50-and-over crowd, plus open green space, walking tracks, and areas to sit and relax.

These kinds of facilities appealed to adults observed in the RAND study, but they were few and far between. Excluding bleachers, only 20 percent of parks had areas meant for people to sit, fewer than a third had a walking loop, and only two percent had a dedicated fitness area. By contrast, nearly all of the parks had lawns and playground areas. Roughly half had outdoor basketball courts and baseball fields.

Of course, redesigning parks to appeal to broader swaths of urban residents often comes at costs cities can’t afford; about 50 percent of parks surveyed by RAND had budget cuts within the past two years. But parks that offered and marketed organized activities, sports, and classes geared toward specific groups saw much higher rates of usage and exercise overall. "If it's soccer, animals, hunting and fishing, scenic beauty," park managers can draw in new groups if they design and advertise programs with thought, Ross Brownson, a professor of epidemiology at Washington University in St. Louis, told NPR.

It’s not just older adults missing out on the full benefits of city parks. Teenage girls also spent markedly little time in these spaces—far less time than boys their age, and than girls 12 and under—and even less time getting exercise. That probably has as much to do with a lack of targeted infrastructure and programming as it does social norms pushing girls away from physical activity, Cohen says.

Parks may not be able to overcome the rigid gender conceptions of adolescence on their own. But with some concerted effort, they may spur a few more girls—and adults—into action.  

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