Lack of access to safe and well-equipped city parks and public open spaces is more than an inconvenience. A longitudinal cohort study in Southern California demonstrated that limited access to parks and recreational resources was significantly associated with the development of childhood obesity [1
]. Levels of physical activity in children and young people are influenced in part by access to safe parks and open spaces [2
]. Communities that set aside greater proportions of space for park areas and ensure access to parks and recreational facilities have contributed to greater physical activity in young inhabitants [2
]. In addition, specific park features such as amenities and playgrounds have also been shown to be associated with increased physical activity levels in children and young people [5
More than 80% of Americans live in metropolitan areas [9
], however, many residents of these cities lack adequate access to parks and open spaces near their homes [10
]. Even in cities that have substantial park space, many neighbourhoods still have residents who lack access to near-by parks [10
]. For example, in New York, nearly half of the city’s 59 community board districts have less than 1.5 acres (or 6070 square meters) of parkland per 1000 residents [11
]. In addition, low income neighbourhoods, populated by minorities and immigrants, are especially short of city parks and public open spaces [12
], and this inequitable distribution may be contributing to childhood and family obesity in these communities [4
Although parks can provide an inviting setting to promote physical activity and active play, personal safety and quality of parks are major concerns for youths and parents [16
]. Poor park maintenance, interracial conflict and discrimination, drug use, and gangs and crime rates in parks are some of the main reasons for low usage of parks in low socio-economic status (SES) communities [16
Given the growing body of evidence as to the benefits of city parks and public open spaces to physical and mental well-being of residents in communities [21
], the issue of environmental injustice in low-income and racial/ethnic minority communities becomes a focus of debate. Environmental injustice in the context of public open space and parks is defined as the disproportionate burden of accessing these local facilities, which enable people to lead healthy lives, experienced by economically and socially disadvantaged populations [23
]. Researchers have studied how various income and racial/ethnic groups have different levels of access (availability and distribution) to parks [4
]. Several studies have investigated the disparities in park quality between neighborhoods [27
]. In general, they found the quality and condition of park features are unequal across areas comprised of varying income and race/ethnicity composition [27
However, the audit assessment tools [31
] that previous studies used to evaluate and quantify various environmental features and amenities including physical quality and condition (aesthetics and maintenance), proximity, incivilities, and safety of parks and open spaces do not consider social environment and play value for children and young people [39
]. Research revealed that social environments, which provide opportunity for children and young people to share, negotiate, cooperate, resolve conflicts and learn self-advocacy skills, and play value of the environment are as important as the physical quality to encourage park use and park-based activity [39
]. Play value in the context of parks and public open spaces refers to the usability of any environmental features or play areas as a setting for play, generating diverse (range and quality) play opportunities and experiences, which may include disability friendly and culturally relevant features, that suit various children's needs, motivations and abilities [41
]. Such play opportunities and experiences support healthy growth and development in children and young people [44
Play value itself is a rather abstract and subjective concept that is difficult to quantify [45
]. In addition to having the play space that is accessible and appeals to physical activity, play value of parks depends on the quantity, quality, and diversity of park features (facilities, play equipment and materials), play space and landscaping [43
For parks that have high play value they not only draw children and young people to visit, but also provide opportunities for a variety of play activities (social / physical / imaginative / cognitive / creative) and the possibility to allow children adapting park elements for their own play purposes, and supporting free exploration [44
]. These characteristics of parks entice children and young people to return time and time again for repeat visits [42
On the other hand, parks with low play value have physical and social barriers for play activities such as limited space of close mown grass fenced with chainlink and ponds that are not open to fishing or playing with remote control boats [48
]. Such park environments serve only limited play purpose, with static rather than dynamic features of play equipment, and do not support children's daily requirements for physical activity [44
]. Parks with low play value often lack environmental (bio)diversity features or loose play materials for manipulation [43
To fill the research gap with regard to potential play value inequality in parks and public open spaces between communities of diverse SES and race/ethnicity, the purpose of this study was to quantify the difference in the quality of environmental features (i.e., Location, Play Value and Care and Maintenance) of park spaces offered between two different income level and racial/ethnic composition communities in a large metropolitan area in the Southeastern United States (US). It was hypothesized that there would be a significant difference in these environment features between the park spaces with respect to Location, Play Value and Care and Maintenance in affluent and non-affluent cities.
Even though the ratio of persons to park in Irondale is lower than in Mountain Brook as shown in Table 1
, the overall park quality of Irondale is inferior to that of Mountain Brook. Results from the present pilot study indicated there were disparities in park access and quality between these two communities of diverse income levels and race/ethnicity composition, which are consistent with findings reported in the literature [27
]. Significantly lower scores across the three aspects of environment features (Location, Play Value and Care and Maintenance) of park spaces were found in the non-affluent community (i.e
., Irondale). In other words, children in the affluent community (i.e
., Mountain Brook) potentially have access to parks and recreation areas that are of a higher quality than in the community (i.e
., Irondale) with lower SES.
The location of areas for play and recreation is perhaps the single most important factor in determining how well children and young people use these parks [51
]. As indicated by persons per park, land area, and proportion of land area to park between the two study cities in Table 1
, the issue of disparities in Location does not seem to be attributed to the actual physical location accessibility, rather the concerns are on the inferiority in informal oversight, and personal safety, lighting and security of parks in Irondale. With the increasing tendency of parents to limit the physical play space range of children and young people, having safe local play places is more likely to ensure use and participation [47
The second aspect of environmental features evaluated through the PSQAT was Play Value. Play Value focuses on the different, innovative and challenging ways in which play areas can offer a variety of opportunities and experiences to suit various children’s needs, motivation and abilities [39
]. Play spaces offer many varied and interesting opportunities and the results of this study indicated that appropriate and stimulating play environments are more likely to exist in a community of higher SES than a community of lower SES. For children in the affluent community, the variety of play experiences are wider than those found in play spaces located in the non-affluent community. Future studies may seek to quantify the nature and types of play and recreation that children and young people engage in across diverse play spaces, as well as to explore the physical and psychological health benefits resulting from the more enriched play experience offered in parks with higher play value.
The final aspect of environmental features that the PSQAT focuses on is Care and Maintenance. All children and young people need spaces that are free from unexpected hazards. Assessing the quality of care and maintenance of the play spaces in the two study cites showed that the affluent community was more likely to be able to allocate resources over time to maintain the area free of unexpected hazards. This appears understandable as care and maintenance requires on-going budgetary commitment, which may be more difficult to sustain in a non-affluent community.
The results showed an overall difference in quality of the three aspects of environment features assessed by the PSQAT, indicating that the investment strategies adopted by the City of Mountain Brook supports the quality of play spaces more than Irondale. It seems the difference in the park quality of these two cities could be due to the fact that Mountain Brook (the more affluent city) collects more tax money, and thus can spend more on parks, including staffing and resources. According to the statistics from City-Data (www.city-data.com/.com
), in 2012–2013, the median real estate property taxes paid for housing units was about $5,000 in Mountain Brook vs.
$800 in Irondale, with six times more in Mountain Brook. The operation budget assigned to parks and recreation was about 2.6 million dollars in Mountain Brook versus
eight hundred thousand dollars in Irondale. In addition, the City of Mountain Brook employed 14 full-time and one part-time staff persons in the Department of Parks and Recreation, whereas the City of Irondale employed only four full-time staff persons.
Knowing the differences in the quality of parks offered by these two cities, planners and communities could leverage them by better allocating resources and environments to enhance the quality and use of these vital community spaces [59
], thus supporting the physical and psychological well-being of the young residents. Policy makers and legislators need to understand the nature of disparities related to various park characteristics and features in these two cities. Findings from this study may assist the development of policy and standards regarding appropriate modifications within city parks and public open spaces leading to the promotion of park use, and park-based activity for children and young people at the community level. However, unless there is a metropolitan or state authority that can allocate resources for parks across these two cities, or non-profit organizations, like the Trust for Public Land, that can help the community raise funds, and renovate the parks and playgrounds in Irondale, the park inequality between these two cities will remain. Finally, given that the Play Value of parks in both communities was inferior in two other aspects of environmental features (i.e.
, Location and Care and Maintenance) of park quality, investment of more resources is recommended in environment features related to play value when it comes to budgetary allocation on improving park quality.
Given the concerns about the small number of parks and purposive sampling of the two cities, we acknowledge that parks audited in this study may or may not represent parks in affluent and non-affluent cities of Alabama; therefore, caution should be exercised regarding generalization of study results. Confirmation of results reported in the present study should come with a population study in which a stratified random sampling of cities in Alabama with SES levels as the stratum. The PSQAT was developed based on a growing body of knowledge about good design principles in outdoor play and about where and how children like to play (i.e., strong content validity). Results from the inter-rater reliability, internal consistency, and correlations between sections of the PSQAT also indicated that PSQAT demonstrated strong psychometric properties of reliability. However, structural validity, criterion validity, cross-cultural validity and responsiveness of the PSQAT need to be established. For example, longitudinal studies with larger samples are needed to establish the validity of PSQAT for predicting physical and psychological well-being over time.