Researchers find new ways to study park use

Application 'Map My Run' latest tool for Brown School researchers

Brown School researchers study how walkers, runners and cyclists use public parks. (Credit: James Byard/wustl photos)

Most walking and running routes go to, through or around a public park — in higher-income neighborhoods.

That’s the finding of a recent study conducted by researchers at the Brown School of Washington University in St. Louis.

The study, titled “Use of Emerging Technologies To Assess Differences in Outdoor Physical Activity in St. Louis, Missouri,” used the website Map My Run as a tool to conduct research and found most routes input by walkers or runners at least partially included parks. But in low-income neighborhoods, the odds of running in a park were 54 percent lower.

The use of parks in low-income neighborhoods is an issue studied by J. Aaron Hipp, PhD, assistant professor in the Brown School, and his team of researchers, including Deepti Adlakha, a PhD candidate at the Brown School and lead author of the Map My Run study.

“Our previous qualitative study on perceived constraints to park use in two north St. Louis communities — both within close proximity of a public park — highlighted several issues related to maintenance, safety and limited amenities that constrained park use and subsequent healthy behaviors,” Adlakha said.

This newest study, published in Frontiers in Public Health, was the first of its kind to use publicly available web data feeds, along with geographic information systems, to assess the use of parks and green spaces for physical activity. Researchers sampled running and walking routes in St. Louis in 2012 and used GIS spatial analysis to identify parks and census tracts included in the routes.

Although low-income neighborhoods had as many parks and green spaces as higher-income neighborhoods, researchers found those parks were underutilized. Safety, maintenance and a lack of amenities were among the hypothesized reasons.

“A more nuanced understanding of physical activity in parks, and barriers to physical activity in parks, is needed for better solutions to increase use of parks, especially those located in low-socioeconomic-status neighborhoods where health disparities are greatest,” Hipp said.

“The use of inexpensive, unobtrusive, and publicly available web data feeds such as Map My Run presents new opportunities to investigate physical activity and built environments, such as parks and sidewalks, without many of the biases and limitations of surveys and in-person observation,” Hipp said.

“This is a new trend in public health and physical activity research,” he said. “Our study demonstrates this inherent potential of emerging technologies to enhance the investigation of physical activity across large geographic and temporal settings.”

In addition to Adlakha and Hipp, co-authors are Elizabeth L. Budd, Rebecca Gernes and Sonia Sequeira, all current or past Brown School graduate students.

To read more about the study, visit here.