Drop-off in urban park access affected the poorest and minority groups during the pandemic

A new study has found that outdoor trails and parks in urban North Carolina have declined in the summer months of 2020 contrary to reports of an increase in users during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study also found that urban park access declined more often in areas where minorities or those with lower incomes were more likely to be affected.

The number of visitors to urban and county parks pretty uniformly across the state and it fell more sharply among people who had never visited parks prior to COVID-19 as well as those with less wealthy or racial or ethnic minorities.

Lincoln Larson, Associate Professor of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management, North Carolina State University, Study Lead Author

Researchers combined survey responses and cellphone tracking data to understand the use of outdoor parks across the state during the last summer. They surveyed 611 North Carolina residents in August 2020 to see whether they could assess their outdoor park usage during the pandemic to the same time in the year 2019. They also examined the location of cell phones in anonymous data collected by the company SafeGraph for those who used their phones at points of interest that have “park” in the name across 66 urban areas during July 2020 and in 2019.

When researchers looked at survey data, they found that across the state, around 56% of people reported they had stopped or reduced their time in open spaces and trails in August 2020. Around 27% said that their use of parks didn’t change, while 16% reported increased usage.

“Our data runs counter to the narrative that people were flocked to parks like never before,” Larson said. “We also found issues with accessibility, equity and access when we looked into the data.”

People who were already likely go to parks prior to the outbreak and were more likely to be white, Hispanic or higher-income, were more likely to use parks during the outbreak. Regular park users prior to the pandemic were 23 times more likely to increase their use of parks during the pandemic compared with people who didn’t visit parks prior to COVID-19. People who frequented parks were nine times more likely to increase park usage. Higher income people were the least likely to stop using parks.

Larson stated that park use is historically more prevalent among whites who have higher incomes. “During the pandemic, although certain people visited parks more, it tended to be people who were already using parks. There’s a social justice issue here.”

The analysis of data from cell phones also revealed a decrease in overall park visits in urban areas, with visits dropping 15% from the year 2019 to 2020. Although the cell phone data could have uncovered people located anywhere within the boundaries of a park, researchers speculated that many visitors were likely outdoors in 2020 because of closures of indoor facilities.

Utilizing census data, researchers discovered connections between social vulnerability measures and park visitation. Specifically, they saw the trend of census tracts that had lower socioeconomic status linked with fewer visits to parks. Areas that had more people who identified themselves as Black, Indigenous, Hispanic or Latinx, Middle Eastern or North African or “other,” were also more likely to experience declines in park visits.

“We recognize that parks are really important in terms of mental health, especially during the time of the pandemic when being outdoors was thought of as more of a safe space, but this suggests not all segments of the population were realizing those benefits,” Larson said. “Like many other things during COVID-19, these disparities are increasing. We need to think long and more deeply about access to parks and park equity across racial, ethnic and income lines.”

Researchers pointed out that the study was limited to urban and suburban areas, and did not include state or national parks in rural areas. However, they emphasized the importance of ensuring that everyone has access parks in urban areas. They also said finding ways to ensure that parks are open and used in areas with low incomes is crucial.

“These findings should inspire recreation and parks professionals to look at their planning and outreach processes to determine if they are reaching out to vulnerable populations,” said study co-author Matt Carusona, director of marketing and programs at the N.C. Recreation and Park Association which was instrumental in funding the study.

“Not only do parks and recreation professionals must ensure that people with social phobias have access to the parks and recreation facilities, but they also have to evaluate if they’re creating a welcoming environment for all their community members. It is crucial to ensure that outreach and marketing efforts are inclusive and suitable for everyone. Furthermore it is essential to have a plan-of-action process for parks or recreation that is accessible to all communities, especially during a pandemic.

Journal reference:

Larson, L. R., et al. (2021) Urban Parks Use in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Are vulnerable communities in the socially vulnerable communitydisproportionately impacted? Frontiers of Sustainable Cities.

Content Source:

Gemma Wilson

Gemma is a journalism graduate with keen interest in covering business news – specifically startups. She has as a keen eye for technologies and has predicted quite a few successful startups over the last couple of years.

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