What Makes a Park “Great”? Park Audit Tools are One Way to Find Out
What makes a park “great”?
I asked myself this question after yet another conversation with friends about “great parks” they could visit around Baltimore, MD as summer approaches. This is a welcomed question, but it takes a little digging to understand what my friends mean when they say “great park.”
So, what makes a park great? Like other public health questions, the short answer is, “it depends.” Defining a great park can be difficult. Just as there is no one typical park user, there is no overarching definition of a great park. One person may perceive that a park with a paved walking path, lots of streetlights, and benches to rest is the hallmark of a great park. Another person may think that a great park is one with natural waterways, dirt trails, and few manmade amenities. While these perceptions are different, they can both describe qualities of a great park.
Because individual perceptions of “great parks” vary, there are ways to empirically evaluate park quality. For example, park audit tools can measure different park features, with the goal of assessing park quality. Over the course of this past academic year, I worked with an undergraduate research assistant to identify and characterize park audit tools. Using resources from Active Living Research and Google Scholar, we examined 10 park audit tools, focusing on their development, intended use, and factors measured. One notable finding was the variety of the factors that were measured by each tool. For example, the number of items included in each park audit tool ranged from 20 to 646 different measured items. These items ranged from park amenities like basketball or tennis courts, safety features such as streetlights, and measures of green space. What this variety tells us is that there is no universal measurement of a great, high-quality park.
Examining these tools not only helps us think about how we define quality, but also the implications of what we define as quality. What we measure matters. Measuring park quality is not only a way to characterize parks, but also is a vehicle to support evaluation, advocacy, and improvement efforts related to parks and recreation. Information collected through using park audit tools can provide data to shape policy change and resource allocation that affect park accessibility and use.
Community members and organizations can use the results of park audits to advocate for new green spaces or improvements to existing parks, such as the addition of desired amenities. For instance, Besenyi and colleagues used a park audit tool to support youth advocacy around the addition of a walking trail and bike racks in a South Carolina community park. These tools can become a powerful addition to an advocate’s toolkit to impact public policy; thus, we must ensure that the tools measure what communities care about when it comes to park quality.
Who completes park assessments also matters. Although the majority of the park audit tools we assessed were designed by academics or other trained researchers, community members should be involved in future designs of park audit tools and in assessing parks in their neighborhoods. Some researchers have successfully collaborated with adult or youth community members to measure park quality, or have engaged community members through interviews to understand park quality and recreation. For example, the Community Park Audit Tool (CPAT) was not only developed in collaboration with more than 30 diverse community stakeholders (researchers, community members, and even high school students), but was assessed and refined using community stakeholder feedback. Community involvement in the development and implementation of park audit tools helps us better understand park quality; the knowledge residents have about their communities is significant because they are the experts in community strengths, needs, and challenges.
In addition to providing information about parks, park audit tools can serve as a platform to help communities build relationships with their local parks. Gallerani and colleagues found that engaging community members to assess parks through park audit tools, especially youth, can help build awareness about parks in their communities and disparities in park quality, while also motivate action for park improvements. There is value in engaging community members through park audit tools to help them physically and emotionally connect with their parks because, ultimately, a great park is one that is loved and used by the people.
Jessica Young, PhD, is Assistant Professor, Department of Health Studies, at American University