Neighborhood Poverty, Park Use, and Park-Based Physical Activity in a Southern California City

How to cite this study

Cohen, D.A., Han, B., Derose, K.P., Williamson, S., Marsh, T., Rudick, J. and McKenzie, T.L., 2012. Neighborhood poverty, park use, and park-based physical activity in a Southern California city. Social Science & Medicine 75(12): 2317-2325.


A large study of 50 urban parks in Southern California measures park use by nearby residents and other users across high-, medium-, and low-poverty areas, finding that parks are used less in high-poverty areas. Those who do use parks in high-poverty areas, however, on average use the parks more per week, are more likely to see familiar people in the parks, and use the parks more when there are more staff present.


This study is relevant for those seeking strategies to increase use of parks and engagement in more physical activity, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. This study describes the factors most strongly associated with increased park use and exercise for low-income residents.

This study is a cross-section, taking a snapshot in time, and does not measure changes over time. While the authors note that more staff presence is associated with more frequent park use, they do not measure the effect of increasing staffing.


This study is based in an undisclosed large city in Southern California.

Trail Type

This study includes 50 urban parks and the neighborhoods within one mile of the parks. These 50 parks were selected out of 183 “eligible” parks in the city. Eligible parks had recreation centers, at least one full-time staff member, and no documented security problems related to gang activity. The researchers selected parks that were distributed throughout the city and represented a range of income, race, and ethnic composition.


The purpose of this study is to determine whether access to parks in high-poverty neighborhoods is associated with more physical activity among low-income residents. The study also investigates which aspects of parks—including proximity to residents, size, quality of amenities, and availability of paid staff running formal programs—are associated with increased use among low-income residents.

This study was funded through a grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health.


  • Parks are used less in high-poverty areas than in low-poverty areas, regardless of the kinds of facilities (e.g., gyms, classrooms, basketball courts).
  • Park users in high-poverty neighborhoods were more likely to live close to the park (0.33 miles in high-poverty parks compared to 0.42 miles in medium-poverty and 0.62 in low-poverty area parks). Park users in high-poverty-area parks are more likely to walk to the park (54% versus 35% in medium- and low-poverty parks). This suggests that park users in low-income neighborhoods are less likely to travel outside walking distance from their home, and need to have safe walking access to encourage use.
  • Park users in high-poverty neighborhoods reported visiting parks more often in the previous week than park users in low- and medium-poverty neighborhoods. Residents in high-poverty areas, however, more often perceive parks as being unsafe and visit less as a result. Together these findings suggest a need to overcome a perception of unsafe areas, and once that hurdle is overcome residents would visit more.
  • In high-poverty areas, the parks are like an extension to peoples’ backyards. Because individual users visit parks more frequently in these neighborhoods, they are more likely to see people they know, creating a valuable social network in the neighborhood.
  • High-poverty-area parks more likely to have inaccessible areas due to locked doors or fences. Each inaccessible area is associated with one percent fewer park users each day.
  • Low-poverty parks have, on average, eight more part-time staff than high-poverty parks. Each additional part-time staff is associated with a one percent increase in the number of park users, or on average an additional 124 users per day. Part-time staff and organized activities are the factors most strongly associated with increased park use and physical activity.
  • Residents and park users are much more likely to use a park when they know park staff, particularly for residents living near the park. This likely is related to residents’ perceived safety of these spaces.
    • High turnover at parks in high-poverty areas presents a challenge.
    • Increased visibility of staff can contribute to improved safety.


The authors conducted their research in 50 neighborhood parks, out of a total of 183 parks in the city. The authors inventoried each park using the System for Observing Play and Recreation in Communities (SOPARC), a tool that allows researchers to systematically collect information about park characteristics and park users’ physical activity. Researchers also inventoried the presence of locked or otherwise inaccessible areas, staff, and programs during each visit.

The authors surveyed 3,654 park users (73 per park, on average) and 3,249 residents (65 per park, on average) living within one mile of the parks to understand how often they use the park, their primary activities, and the amount and type of physical activity during each visit. The sample of residents was divided into distance from the park: within ¼ mile, ¼- ½ mile, and ½ mile-1 mile.

Added to library on January 10, 2018