It’s easy to assume that urban green spaces are largely the turf of older folks. After all, it’s rare to step into a city park and not spot a newspaper-clutching gentleman of a certain age occupying his regular bench, a group of old codgers presiding over the bocce court or a cluster of grey-haired gals getting their cardio on along the walking paths. And, of course, pretty much every neighborhood park has that token pensioner who has taken it upon himself to supply every pigeon and duck within a 5-mile radius with a bounty of stale bread.
Yet according to a first-of-its-kind study conducted by nonprofit research organization the RAND Corporation and published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, America’s wealth of neighborhood parks are woefully underutilized by senior citizens and adults in general.
While senior citizens represent 20 percent of the general population, they only constitute 4 percent of park users. Children, on the other hand, can claim 38 percent of park usage while making up 18 percent of the generation population.
And this isn’t necessarily because elderly citizens don’t want to take advantage of local parks — it’s because a majority of said parks skew toward rambunctious, jungle gym-scaling kids. And amongst these park-dominating youth, a majority of them are boys; only 40 percent of park-frequenting children being little girls. According to the study, the presence of teenaged females in neighborhood parks is even slighter at 35 percent.
Basically, little boys rule — as they tend to do.
Senior park-goers: Overlooked and underserved?
RAND's study was conduced over the spring and summer of 2014 by field staff who closely observed activity in 174 neighborhood parks spanning 25 American cities with populations of 100,000 or more including Dallas, San Francisco, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Columbus, Georgia.
As a news release explains, the field researchers “applied methods developed for the study to count users, document characteristics such as age and gender, and record activities, including whether users were engaged in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.”
Senior administrators from the park systems in the cities in question were also interviewed as part of the study. Intriguingly, none of the administrators were found to regularly measure park usage aside from keeping track of registration numbers for sports leagues and special events. Essentially, the study found that those who lead the parks and recreation departments of America's largest cities have only a vague idea of who does what within their parks on a daily basis.
Elaborates the study’s lead author, Dr. Deborah Cohen: “The fire department or the police department can tell you exactly how many people use their services, but parks and recreation departments have not had any metrics to adequately report who is using their facilities."
So while the neighborhood parks observed were not necessarily devoid of seniors, the older folks found using the parks were a largely sedentary bunch without facilities or programmed activities to cater to their specific needs. They remained bound to benches, basically.
“It's really sad that so few seniors are using our public parks,” Cohen explains. “We need to make changes to attract older people to parks to exercise and stay active, especially with the increasing rates of chronic disease among older people and as our nation's population grows older.”
Swing sets, slides and untapped potential
The study suggests that neighborhood parks that aren't particularly senior-friendly should consider adding "enhancements" such as walking loops or offering physical wellness-oriented classes that have the potential to attract users that haven’t been grounded for throwing spitballs at Madison McAdams during story time.
"Our nation's public parks have much unmet potential to be a center of physical activity for adults, older Americans and females," says Cohen. "It appears possible to increase physical activity among adults, seniors and females by making modest investments in facilities and programming.”
In addition to a dearth of physical fitness opportunities for seniors and young females, the study — titled appropriately, “The First National Study of Neighborhood Parks” — also found that park usage was lower in lower-income neighborhoods even when the size of the park and the facilities were comparable to parks in more affluent neighborhoods. The study’s authors suggest that additional organized activities and local outreach could help to remedy this.
Of course, there are exceptions.
Some neighborhood parks, in addition to sporting all of the facilities capable of keeping an energetic 9-year-old boy happily occupied for hours on end, have made a concerted effort to attract active seniors. These parks often feature designated low-impact exercise stations and fitness zones, walking trails and sitting areas — that is, sitting areas at a remove from the chaotic scene found around the slides, seesaws and swing sets. Other urban parks regularly host events and activities geared toward the AARP crowd.
Still, parks that emphasize intergenerational usage remain in the minority with less than one-third of parks observed as part of the study featuring a basic walking track. By comparison, 90 percent of neighborhood parks observed included a playground. Roughly half of the parks observed were home to baseball fields and basketball courts, features that doesn’t necessarily exclude older adults but aren’t necessarily geared toward them either.
How does the neighborhood park in your neck of the woods stack up? Are there kid- and adult-friendly features to be found in equal measure? Or does it cater more to the monkey bar set?