Close to Home

By Robby Layton

A study currently underway reveals insights into the human-park relationship in a typical American community. The study makes use of survey responses collected as part of parks and recreation master-planning efforts in four communities located in three different states: Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland, Tulsa, Okla., and Cary, N.C. More than 1,800 responses from those communities were combined to create a wide range of demographics and park facilities. While not intended to represent all communities across the country, the sample provides an idea of what the park system looks like from a typical household in much of America. A geographic information system (GIS) was used to measure characteristics of the park system around each survey respondent’s home address.

The Lay Of The Land
The four communities ranged in population from 139,382 to 967,000 for a combined population of approximately 2.3-million people. The land areas encompassed by the study ranged from 54 to 483 square miles, with a combined area of more than 1,200 square miles. Densities in the immediate neighborhood of survey respondents’ homes ranged from less than one person per square mile to more than 20,000 per square mile, with an average density of 4,245 people per square mile.

A Portrait Of The People
So, who are the people in this study? To begin with, the assumption is they represent individuals who have an interest in parks. While the surveys were sent to a random sample of homes in the four communities, the responses suggest a bias towards people who are interested enough in parks to participate in the survey. When asked to rate the importance of parks on a scale from one to five, with five being highly important, the average response was 4.76.

The “average” respondent was a 50-year-old, white female who has lived in the community for 20 years. She is married with one child living in the house. Let’s call her Lisa, since that was the most common name for baby girls when she was born in 1966. Lisa’s household income is between $50,000 and $100,000. She reports that someone from her household has visited a park 19 times in the previous 12 months.

Averages And Medians
Lisa has a single park located near her home. Of that park’s 132 acres, 12 acres are within a 10-minute walk from Lisa’s address, and the remainder extends beyond it. While most parks may have several components, such as a trail, playground, sports field, or open grassy area, this park has only two. Most likely, the park near Lisa’s home is an open space or natural area rather than a developed park, but it has a trail and some other amenity, perhaps a picnic shelter.

If, instead of averages, medians from the data are used, there is a different picture. The difference between averages and medians for the demographics data are not large, so the portrait of Lisa is still the same, except that now someone from her household has visited a park only eight times, rather than 19, in the previous year. And Lisa may no longer have a child living at home. But the description of her local park changes quite a bit. While she still has one park within walking distance of her home, that park is now 19 acres in size instead of 132 acres. The linear distance from her home to the park is just over a quarter-mile. Of the park’s total acres, 1.62 acres fall inside a 10-minute walk from Lisa’s home. Instead of two components in the park, there may be one or none at all.

Whether averages or medians are used to describe Lisa and her park, one can conclude that the typical respondent in this study has access to a single park or similar greenspace within a half-mile from home, but its size may vary widely from quite small to hundreds of acres. There is little consistency in the size of parks closest to participants’ homes, as well as the total number of acres located within walking distance of home. Also, whether or not the park has many components, few of those are within a 10-minute walk from home.

More Meaningful Data
What does this mean for planners? First, there is much to be desired if the goal is to provide amenities that people can walk to and enjoy while getting fresh air and exercise. While it seems that, on average, one can get to some type of greenspace within a reasonable walk, there may not be much to do once he or she gets there. But instead of a rush to increase the quantity of land and components and reduce the distance to those from home, it may make more sense to look for new ways to measure parks and greenspace. Traditional planning practices have relied on how much and how far as the primary measures of service. Recent research suggests that there are many variables besides quantity and proximity that affect the benefits that people receive from parks. The quality of parks is as important as the quantity. How good is Lisa’s park, and does it have the things she needs? Demographics play a large role in how people relate to parks and what they get from them. Finding better ways to measure subjective values and tailor parks to the needs of the people who live nearby is an important next step.

Robby Layton, FASLA, PLA, CPRP is a founder and Principal of Design Concepts CLA, Inc., a national landscape architecture and planning firm. He is also a Ph.D. candidate and adjunct faculty member in the College of Design at North Carolina State University, where his research is focused on the relationship between public greenspace and human well-being. He is currently completing his dissertation on how the characteristics of park systems affect perceptions and visitation of parks. He can be reached at