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?

Thinking about the lack of outdoor basketball courts, Part 2

Yesterday, I wrote about a discussion a friend and I had about what we perceive as a lack of decent outdoor basketball courts. Perhaps we aren’t the only ones who think this is an issue. Here are the thoughts of one writer in Burlington, North Carolina:

One thing I’ve noticed as an adult is that there are fewer outdoor courts than there used to be. There’s not a single one in my neighborhood, which does have a pool, tennis courts, fields, walking trails, a lake and a playground. Those portable goals you find along streets in the suburbs don’t count.

I don’t know if residential developers at some point came to see basketball courts as hotbeds for malfeasance, but I think it’s ridiculous that in the middle of one of the three-most basketball-crazed states in the Union I can’t walk to a basketball court from my house.

Here is another example from a writer in Lima, Ohio, though he seems to be referring also to basketball hoops in driveways:

Taking my game to Bradfield was not exactly breaking down a barrier, but it was a difficult step for a 15 year old looking for the best competition in the city. I sat on the sidelines for two days before one of the older players, Cleo Vaughn, picked me for his team. Vaughn, whose own athletic odyssey was stuff of dreams, took me under his wing and I owe much of my own emergence as a player to his guidance. Cleo began picking me up in his car and taking me to courts all over the city. Each one of these basketball courts was unique and presented its own challenges.

Whittier playground offered great full-court games with a colorful and vocal crowd of onlookers but if you lost, you were forced to wait for hours because there were so many young players waiting their turn. The most physical games could be found at Mizpah Mission in the deep south end. There was only a single basket there at the time, but those three-on-three games were the most intense in the city. You could always find a great game at Northside playground but the courts were so long it felt like you had run a marathon when the game ended. And there were many other great outdoor venues, all unique in their own design and makeup.

But my favorite courts remained the outdoor courts at Bradfield Center and the most memorable times were the nights that the flame from the Standard Oil Refinery was turned up full blast and the light it shed was powerful enough to allow us to play late into the evenings and avoid the heat of midday.

Both of these stories talk about particular places and are also tinged with nostalgia. These columnists have good memories of playing on outdoor courts and now see fewer young adults playing on outside courts. The first writer suggests developers may not be interested in building courts while the second suggests kids grow up playing indoors in organized sports rather than free-wheeling games in driveways or neighborhood parks.

Of course, this is anecdotal evidence and these two columnists disagree about the cause of this.

The problem may not just be limited to the United States: here is an online petition signed by 554 people asking for at least one nice outdoor basketball court in all Australian cities:

Kids around Australia, as well as teenagers and young adults, always email us (MSF) and tell us that the new highschool court in their area is closed after school hours… so what’s the point of having a facility when the local youth can’t use it to it’s full potential? Where’s the night lights? Where’s the support for the people who want to play sports instead of hanging out with friends at nightclubs or at home playing video games? not just at night though, we’re talking about during the day also. The youth do not have enough positive recreational facilities to unite at. And if there are a few, the basketball courts are usually ALWAYS the cheapest and worst quality that end up steering kids away. Fact.

Our proposition; on behalf of millions of other Australians; build ONE Superior outdoor basketball court in each Australian City… central to all suburbs. Close to transport. Secure and Safe. Night lights. Open 24 hours. The highest standard of ring systems and surface. And then you will all see; the Domino Effect. These superior outdoor courts will become populated with positivity and energy; believe it. And once it succeeds in one community, other communities and councils will follow in these footsteps.

It is interesting that this petition tries to flip Reason #1 for fewer basketball courts (they create more problems with the people they attract) on its head by suggesting these courts are actually helpful in combating other social problems. If kids play on outdoor courts, they are not just sitting around playing video games and they are not getting into more active trouble elsewhere. If this argument is correct, could this then a NIMBY issue where immediate neighbors don’t want the basketball courts even though the courts would benefit society as a whole? If this is what happens, the neighbors win out, courts can’t be built near where people actually live, and fewer communities decide to build outdoor courts overall. Parks themselves, basketball courts or not, can become NIMBY sites as their public space threatens nearby public space.

(At least New York City claims to have plenty of outdoor courts: “There are hundreds of outdoor courts in New York City. In the basketball capital of the world, it’s possible to find a game within walking distance of any location. Recreation Centers in all five boroughs have indoor courts as well.”)

Thinking about the lack of outdoor basketball courts, Part 1

While playing basketball during good weather on a popular outdoor court, a friend and I discussed what we perceive to be an issue: a lack of well-built outdoor basketball courts. To be well-built, we don’t ask for much: decent basketball poles and backboards, a decent court surface, and somewhat close to a regulation court size (and I have seen a number of courts that don’t meet one or more of these conditions). While I don’t have hard evidence that there is a lack of basketball courts (outside of personal experience living within a rather populated suburban area), here are some reasons why there may not be very many:

1. Basketball courts attract a certain kind of crowd: young men who can be loud and who might loiter around waiting for a game. This could be problematic for nearby suburban neighbors.

2. Basketball courts could be a liability risk for communities. People can run into poles, hang on the rim, suffer injuries on the concrete, etc. (I suspect this could be a problem for all sorts of outdoor equipment but I’m sure communities are prepared for this.)

3. Basketball courts could be expensive to maintain. The surface has to be pretty good because cracks aren’t great for dribbling. Nice nets would be helpful but these have to be replaced. (I can’t see how this would be that more expensive than maintaining a tennis court, however.)

4. Basketball courts are safer to monitor and maintain inside or in the driveway. Kids can be watched more closely. Indoors, the courts don’t get wet and players can’t loiter or throw litter in the sight of local residents in the same way. (Indoor courts can often require money, particularly if attached to a health club or park district. While these courts are often nicer, there is still something about playing outside – as long as the temperature is reasonable.)

5. There may not be much public outcry for basketball courts. The National Association of Sporting Goods has some numbers about basketball participation in 2010: 26.9 million Americans played more than once and this is 13th on the list of activities (though this includes non-exercise activities such as camping and fishing). According to 2008 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the “16% of persons who engaged in any sports or exercise activity on an average day,” 5.1% played basketball. And in a later chart looking at the same 16%, more 15-24 year-old people engaged in basketball than any other activity.

My friend was firmly for reason #1. Perhaps the closest equivalent I can think of are skate parks. Proposals for these recreational sites often draw interesting public reactions because of the crowd they attract.

Several pieces of data could shed light on whether this hypothesis is correct:

1. It would be interesting to see where basketball courts are typically built. Poorer or richer neighborhoods? Near homes or elsewhere?

2. How does the number of outdoor basketball courts compare to the number of outdoor tennis courts?

3. Who exactly pushes for basketball courts? Are outdoor basketball courts typically included in proposals for parks from developers or municipalities? Do residents have to make a suggestion?

I don’t know if any of this data exists. In Part 2 tomorrow, I will look at a few recent commentators that make their own argument about why there are not many outdoor basketball courts.