How to Enhance Access to Parks, Nature and Outdoor Physical Activity
In “Nature Contact as a Means to Health and Physical Activity,” we explored the benefits of nature contact and barriers that King County youth face in discovering their nearby parks, trails, mountains, and bodies of water. This post will look into the importance of the built environment in promoting outdoor play and what regional organizations are doing to enhance access to the robust outdoor recreation opportunities in this region.
Walkability is critical but doesn’t tell the whole story.
Walkability to parks is often used to indicate safety and presence of adequate non-road infrastructure, but it is not the only environmental trait that promotes a healthy lifestyle. A recent study examining obesogenic environments in Seattle and San Diego supported the use of additional measures - like “playability” (public park proximity/availability and features most related to physical activity among youth 6–11 years old) and proximity to healthy food - to supplement current GIS-based walkability measures (Frank et al., 2012). In Seattle, geographic proximity also doesn’t always mean accessibility or safety. While many areas of Seattle are “walkable,” they are not always conducive to play. State of Play: Seattle-King County (2019) quoted one municipal leader who explained that while parks exist all over the county, there are some that “no parent in their right mind would allow their child to go [to], or maybe they would allow their child to play at the park but not to walk there” (p. 10).
Transportation remains both a problem and a solution.
One way to be physically active is to access the myriad opportunities for outdoor recreation in the region. However, for youth, and low-income youth in particular, finding ways to get to the mountains is a challenge. Currently, transit access to parks on a typical Saturday morning is limited outside of the urban core, as shown by the below map.
In response to transit inaccessibility, King County is investing in ways to expand access to popular regional hiking destinations.Trailhead Direct, a pilot project co-led by King County Metro and Parks, provides transit access to nearby mountains and trails including Mailbox Peak and Cougar Mountain. The 2018 season recorded more than 20,000 passengers and expansion to the region’s most racially diverse communities - SeaTac and Renton (Lloyd, 2018). State of Play: Seattle-King County revealed this could be helpful to youth in our region; overall, over half of youth surveyed would use public transportation, if provided, to experience outdoor recreation.
Experience in the outdoors builds confidence and interest in nature.
However, spending time at parks near home is an important step in youth having an interest in outdoor recreation farther afield. In our survey, youth who spent any time at a park during the month were more willing to take public transit to nearby trails, water, or mountains. Similarly, Lekies, Yost, & Rode (2015) studied the impact of outdoor recreation exposure among urban youth. Among other impacts, engaging youth in outdoor recreation is a means to build confidence and trust, master skills, promote pro-environmental attitudes, develop positive perceptions of natural environments, and increase their interest in environmental professions. Direct contact with nature among those with limited experience with the outdoors was shown to reduce negative interpretations of nature like fear or danger, and lead to more appreciation of the outdoors even in a short time of a few weeks or days.
Underscoring this principle, Seattle-based programs like SOS Outreach and The Service Board work to build participants’ confidence and abilities in the outdoors. Collectively, the programs teach tenacity, empowerment, and determination through activities like snowboarding and skiing.
Ongoing research supports the power of nature contact for health.
The University of Washington leads research through its Nature and Health initiative, which supports research on nature contact as a means to address critical health issues. As part of this work, Dr. Pooja Tandon, a UW assistant professor of pediatrics and a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, is working with outdoor preschools to further understand the benefits of outdoor time for kids. The Trust for Public Land (TPL) recently released an analysis showing that opening America’s public school grounds during non-school hours has the potential to alleviate the problem of park access for almost 20 million people nationwide, including over 5 million youth. In 2020, TPL is partnering with Metro Parks Tacoma and the Tacoma School District to pilot green schoolyards in some Tacoma neighborhoods.
Frank, L.D., Saelens, B.E., Chapman, J., Sallis, J.F., Kerr, J., Glanz, K., Couch, S.C., Learnihan, V., Zhou, C., Colburn, T. and Cain, K.L., 2012. Objective assessment of obesogenic environments in youth: geographic information system methods and spatial findings from the neighborhood impact on kids study. American journal of preventive medicine, 42(5), p. e47-e55.