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Who Uses the Nation’s Parks?

Little boys, mostly—which means a great resource for all ages to get exercise and enjoy the sunshine is going unused.

By Nathan Collins


A man plays a saxophone in Washington Square Park in New York City. (Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Parks are community spaces, at least in theory. Down the block from a certain reporter’s apartment, boys and girls play on concrete slides, chase each other around, and swing to their hearts’ (or their parents’) content. On summer Sundays a little further to the West, an old-timer baseball league gathers to compete. And most weekday mornings, in some park somewhere, a mix of young and old practice tai chi.

Rosy as those images might be, they basically amount to Norman Rockwell versions of America’s parks, according to a new study—which is to say, they present a lousy picture of what’s actually going on. In reality, our parks are geared mostly toward young children. That’s a problem, a team led by RAND Corporation researcher Deborah Cohen writes in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, because parks are one of the easiest and least expensive places for an increasingly sedentary society to get exercise.

“The mere presence of a park does not guarantee its use, even when many facilities are usable,” writes the research team, whose new study “identified multiple disparities in park use, especially low use among adults, seniors, girls, and women, and lower use in higher-poverty neighborhoods, suggesting efforts to improve services for these subpopulations are necessary.”

Generally speaking, Americans are not taking advantage of parks.

Cohen and her team reached that conclusion after a survey of 174 parks in 25 major cities across the country. During milder days between April and August 2014, field assistants sat in the parks taking observational notes on the gender, approximate age, and physical activity of park-goers—basically, who was doing what.

Generally speaking, Americans are not taking advantage of parks. The average park was 8.8 acres—roughly the size of seven football fields—and saw 20 visitors an hour, which translates to roughly 1,500 person-hours per week. (If two people spent a half-hour each in the park, that would be one person-hour.) Parks in low-income neighborhoods were about 20 percent smaller, and people spent about 20 percent less time in them, although those parks boasted many of the same facilities as those in higher-income neighborhoods.

There were also substantial disparities in who uses parks. Boys and men were more likely than girls and women to use parks, especially among teenagers—65 percent of teens in parks were male. Park users were also disproportionately young. Children and teens accounted for 38 percent and 13 percent of the people counted, but they make up 20 and seven percent of the United States’ total population. Seniors over age 60 make up 20 percent of the population, but only four percent of park-goers.

“Given that physical activity may have more immediate benefits for adults and seniors as far as preventing or mitigating the impact of chronic diseases, park systems should consider adding enhancements,” the team writes, “like walking loops, and more programming that would appeal to older age groups.”