Monday, June 18, 2012

Does being near a park mean that people use it?

The Bronx has over 7,000 acres of park space - more than any other borough in New York City. Yet, the borough’s health outcomes are the worst in the state and data from the NYC Department of Health shows a dearth of physical activity by Bronx residents. In a recent survey, close to 30% of Bronx residents reported engaging in no physical activity in the last 30 days.

Though some studies have shown proximity to a park does increase physical activity in urban areas, it’s not a cure-all. Concerns about park access, park safety, and park sanitation are frequently cited by Bronx residents when asked about their park usage. A recent journal article in Health Affairs by a primary care physician who used to practice in the South Bronx chronicled the story of one of his patients who had gained weight and developed back problems in a relatively short span of time. For years the man had played soccer at Macombs Dam Park, but when the Yankees built their new stadium right next to it, the parkland had become a construction site. Though the city replaced the park five years later with plenty of places to exercise including handball courts, basketball courts, baseball diamonds, and a running track, there is very little green open space. An artificial turf field was built on top of a parking garage but the doctor found that it was used primarily by youth sports leagues. The pickup adult soccer games had stopped.

As the doctor learned and as Bronx Health REACH has heard again and again, just living near a park doesn’t mean that people are going to use it. Bronx Health REACH has two National Parks Service Community HealthCorps members working in the borough to increase utilization of the parks. They have started walking groups in nearby parks and worked with youth to use the park for outdoor activities. While these programs have been successful, there have been many roadblocks. For one, many people living near these parks didn’t even know they existed. Or if they did, they didn’t feel welcome to use them because of perceptions that the parks administrators had made it difficult to get permits or refused to work with community groups trying to hold programming. Recently, Bronx Health REACH heard from one of its partner schools, Sheridan Academy for Young Leaders (PS 457), that it had been denied a permit for a field day at Macombs Dam Park on the grounds that schools (and the kids that come with them) damage the parks. What good is a public park if children can’t play in it?

Bronx Health REACH will continue its efforts to address residents’ concerts around park access, safety, and sanitation. We have met with park officials about easing restrictions on permits and increasing their visibility in the neighborhood. We are also starting conversations with local police precincts and the parks service to increase patrols in Bronx parks where residents have told us they feel unsafe. These are not insurmountable obstacles, but they are real ones and until they are addressed it’s unrealistic to think that just having a park will result in increased physical activity. Bronx Health REACH has seen that facilitating exercise in outdoor spaces does result in weight loss, but until community residents utilize these spaces on their own, the programs will be hard to sustain. We hope that by addressing Bronx residents concerns and making the parks more welcoming to their neighbors, more people will take that first step into a healthier lifestyle.

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