Differentiating between playgrounds and parks in poor versus wealthy neighborhoods

Researchers in recent years have looked at different amenities in poor versus wealthier neighborhoods, things like pawn shops, payday loan stores, and grocery stores. But what about parks and playgrounds? Here is a summary of a new study:

A recent study, published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine, looked at the amenities in 165 parks in the four-county Kansas City metro region. Low-income neighborhoods actually had more parks per capita (perhaps a result, the authors suggest, of the fact that minority communities in the area are largely located in the older urban core where more parks were once planned into the city’s layout). Parks in predominantly minority communities were also more likely to have basketball courts.

But the researchers also found that these same parks were less likely to have aesthetic features like decorative landscaping, trails and playgrounds. As the authors explain:

These findings are problematic because playgrounds have been shown to promote increased [physical activity] intensity and healthier weight status among children. Areas of low [socioeconomic status] are perhaps the neighborhoods that need playgrounds the most due to the increased likelihood of those areas having a higher prevalence of youth who are overweight or obese.

These findings also suggest one simple strategy (among many needed) to address health disparities in low-income communities in any city: Make sure public parks seem like places a 7-year-old would actually want to spend the day.

Parks are complex spaces. Jane Jacobs discusses them in The Death and Life of Great American Cities and suggests they aren’t necessarily good – like other areas of a neighborhood, they require care and benefit from a mix of uses and people on surrounding streets. Parks can be planned for but also require physical and social maintenance.

I was reminded again of some of these different amenities in a recent visit to a community gym in a nearby community. It was a busy weekday evening with a variety of activities taking place: the large room with aerobic and weight equipment was packed, the gym with gymnastics had a small class in there, and then there was another larger gym space. It was an open night for basketball with two possible courts. However, one court was being used for about 10 ping-pong tables and the other for basketball. In other words, how much are park amenities, like basketball courts or hiking trails, tied to the race and class status of the neighborhood?

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