Neighborhood Income Matters: Disparities in Community Recreation Facilities, Amenities, and Programs

Benefits studied: ,
Uses studied:
Place: San Diego County


At a sample of recreation centers in southern California, researchers find that several measures of facility condition and amenities are better in high-income neighborhoods relative to low-income neighborhoods. The likelihood that a child uses the recreation center increases 23 percent for each $10,000 increase in neighborhood income, but the authors do not find a relationship between the quality of the facility and participation rates.


This study is relevant for those looking to increase physical activity through recreation centers and associated programs, and those who want to target programs specifically to children in low-income neighborhoods. These findings can be used to help prioritize and justify investments in facility amenities and programming.

This study uses data from several data sources, including self-reported surveys. The authors took precautions to avoid systematic biases, such as overestimating program participation, but some inaccuracies are unavoidable.

The study measures visits to the recreation center but does not directly measure changes in physical activity of participants. Future work by this research team aims to determine whether this relationship exists.


This study is located in five cities in San Diego County, California.

Trail Type

This study is based on a sample of 30 public recreation centers that have indoor and outdoor recreation spaces, youth activity programs, and are open after school.


The purpose of this study is to help establish the link between neighborhood income, the quality of recreational facilities, and the implications for children’s physical activity and health. Other studies have documented the relationship between neighborhood socioeconomics and recreational facility use, but most have not evaluated how these disparities in quality affect facility use.

This study was funded through grants from the National Institutes of Health.


  • Facilities in low-income areas are less likely to have facilities in good condition, like gymnasiums, activity spaces, benches, and trash containers.
  • Facilities in low-income areas are more likely to have graffiti, but none of the other negative aesthetics.
  • For every $10,000 increase in neighborhood income, the likelihood of having facilities in good condition increases by 36 percent.
  • The likelihood that a child uses the recreation center increases 23 percent for each $10,000 increase in neighborhood income.
  • The chance that a child uses the recreation center increases by 65 percent for every additional amenity available (e.g., bathrooms, benches, bike racks)
  • Low-income neighborhoods have more free programs, but both low- and high-income neighborhoods provide relatively few free programs.


The researchers surveyed 541 families (18 on average from each recreational facility) with at least one child 5-8 years old. Families were recruited through flyers, public presentations, phone calls, and information booths at the recreation centers and elementary schools. Parents reported how often their child used the facility and the activities they participated in.

Researchers evaluated each of the 30 recreational facilities using a formal tool called the Recreation Facility Audit Tool to allow them to collect data consistently. This tool measures the quality and presence of amenities and presence of “incivilities” like graffiti and litter. Researchers obtained census data on neighborhood income for the census block group where the centers are located.

Supervisors at each facility completed a Structured Physical Activity Survey to assess the availability and participation in formal physical activity programs.

Researchers integrated these data sources—facility and family surveys and census data—using regression models. The first set of models measured the quality of the recreation center as a function of neighborhood income. The second set of models measured families’ use of the facility as a function of the recreation center’s quality.


McKenzie, T.L., Moody, J.S., Carlson, J.A., Lopez, N.V. and Elder, J.P., 2013. Neighborhood income matters: disparities in community recreation facilities, amenities, and programs. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration 31(4): 12.