$318M NYC Community Parks Initiative is associated with increased use of urban parks in low-income neighborhoods

Apr 18, 2024 | News

A new study in JAMA Network Open led by researchers from the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, including PRI Innovation and Scaling Faculty Member Terry Huang, observed 28,322 park users across 54 neighborhood parks and found a clear association between park renovation and park use in low-income neighborhoods in New York City (NYC).

As the global trend toward urbanization continues, two thirds of the world’s population is predicted to live in cities by 2050. Amid the noise, stress, and crowding of city life, urban parks have the potential to provide opportunities for physical activity, mitigate heat and pollution, lower stress, and improve mental and social well-being, all of which can decrease the prevalence of chronic diseases.

Previous public health studies have established that parks in underserved areas with higher proportions of Black and Latino residents with low income historically receive less funding and have fewer physical activity resources than those in predominantly White and wealthier neighborhoods across the US. In addition, residents in lower- income areas have been shown to engage in less physical activity than those in higher-income areas. In NYC, despite the ubiquity of parks, disparities in park quality and use persist.

To address these disparities by ensuring parks equity, the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation (NYC Parks) launched the Community Parks Initiative (CPI) in 2014, a $318 million redesign and renovation of 67 neighborhood parks. Selected parks were historically underinvested, having received less than $250,000 in capital investment in the past 20 years.  The selected sites were situated in densely populated and growing neighborhoods with higher-than-average concentrations of residents living in high poverty.  Across CPI sites, the park renovations improved aesthetics, vegetation, shade, seating areas, accessibility, children’s play equipment, exercise and sports amenities, and community gathering spaces.  Community engagement was integral to planning for the park renovations.  NYC residents participated in community input sessions to provide insights into how they would like to use the parks and ideas about what types of amenities could be incorporated into the renovation.

As the CPI rolled out in waves, it provided a unique opportunity to examine the effects of park redesign and renovation on park use and physical activity on an unprecedented citywide scale. The current study evaluated the association of the CPI from baseline to 1 year post park renovation (or approximately 3 years post baseline) on changes in park use and level of physical activity in parks.

Thirty-three intervention parks were selected from the CPI program.  Twenty-one control parks were selected based on alignment with CPI program criteria and matched sociodemographics.

Overall, the CPI was associated with a greater net number of park users at intervention parks over time. This was a result of both increased use of CPI parks and decreased use of control parks, with some differences by age and sex.

Among youths (defined as age 20 and below), park use remained steady over time in intervention parks while it decreased significantly in control parks. Among adults, park use increased significantly at intervention parks but remained unchanged at control parks.

There was a greater net number of both female and male park users at intervention vs. control parks over time, due to a marginal increase in female users at intervention parks and significant decreases of users of both sexes at control parks.

The CPI led to a net positive increase of users engaged in sitting or standing at intervention vs control parks over time. Sitting or standing increased significantly at intervention parks but did not change at control parks. Furthermore, there was a net positive number of users engaged in walking or vigorous physical activity at intervention vs control parks over time. Park users engaging in walking or vigorous physical activity did not change significantly at intervention parks but decreased significantly at control parks.

In this study, park redesign and renovation were associated with increased park use in low-income neighborhoods, offering a rare opportunity to evaluate initiatives on park use and park-based physical activity in NYC communities that are heavily Black and Latino. The large number of park sites and longitudinal design with matched controls are major strengths in this study. While the findings suggest a positive impact on park use, especially among adults, more research is needed for understanding park-related physical activity. This study may help inform future urban development and public health policies regarding public parks.

“We are thrilled to see the evidence highlighting what we already knew, that investing strategically in our local parks increases New Yorkers’ use of them. CPI is a cornerstone parks equity program that is fundamental to our agency’s work, and we recently announced 20 new sites that will go through renovation, as part of this program’s expansion efforts,” said NYC Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue. “We extend our gratitude to the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, and our partners, for developing research focused on the significance of enhancing public parks across the five boroughs. The investment in our local parks benefits all New Yorkers because they add critical spaces for wholesome recreation, fostering community cohesion, and connecting with nature.”

“Thanks to the CPI, this is one of the largest studies on how improving urban parks affects park use,” says senior author Distinguished Professor Terry Huang. “While we found a significant net increase in park users at intervention vs. control parks over time, the study also suggested that more efforts may be needed, such as culturally tailored programming, to promote physical activity in parks. Improving the physical environment is the first step; we now need to leverage it to also enhance the social environment to ultimately improve population wellbeing.”