One of the many lessons we've learnt over the past 18 months has been the enormous value of our parks and outdoor spaces as important community assets in local neighbourhoods. When we've been in lockdown or physically distancing, they have been an easily accessible haven for exercise and fresh air and helped us maintain our physical, social, and mental health.
But not all our parks are fit for purpose or meet the needs of the community. We know this because our three-year research study, ProjectPARK, looked closely at what features people prefer in their local parks to encourage them to visit and be active and social. Perhaps not surprisingly, different age groups value different features.
Children told us they like opportunities for physical challenge, risk and adventure, such as long flying foxes, large adventure playgrounds, trees for climbing, large round swings, obstacle courses, and large climbing equipment.
An 11-year-old boy described his perfect park this way: "A really big playground, like a big wooden structure with a high bit. It has lots of areas, and it's like a maze, but it's lifted off the ground. And there's one part where it's up really high and the playground has lots of pathways and stuff".
Teenagers like places to hang out with friends, sports courts and goals, large grassy open spaces, large swings, and outdoor fitness equipment. They prefer park features that are large, adventurous and challenging and enjoy cafes and barbecue and picnic areas for socialising.
A 14-year-old girl told us what she enjoys doing with her friends at her local park: "Me and my friends just come up here and muck around, so sometimes we'll go on the swings or push each other down the slide and play on the swing things till we fall off because we get so dizzy".
Older adults enjoy more peaceful and relaxed settings with walking paths, shady trees, birdlife, and water features. Cafes and barbecue and picnic areas are also important for social interaction. A 69-year-old woman told us her ideal park was "nice and secluded, away from the main traffic. It's got some big trees, it's got pleasant lawns, quiet, you feel pleasant and it's easy to get to".
Physical inactivity is responsible for more than five million deaths per year globally.
This research, conducted by Deakin University's Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, included walk-along interviews with more than 100 children, adolescents, and older adults in nine parks across Melbourne. We then surveyed more than 1500 people in the same age range and asked them to rate different park features and perform tasks to identify what features were most important for encouraging visitation, physical activity, and social interaction.
We also interviewed more than 20 key stakeholders employed in park design, planning and management.
The information we have gathered is more important than ever, considering cities are becoming increasingly congested and more people are living in homes with smaller backgrounds. Opportunities to be active and interact with others are needed to alleviate high levels of chronic disease, physical inactivity and obesity, social exclusion, and decreased contact between people and nature.
Physical inactivity is responsible for more than five million deaths per year globally. Currently, in Australia, about 70 per cent of children and adolescents and 55 per cent of adults do not do enough physical activity to meet Australian Government recommendations.
Parks have the power to help tackle these challenges but only if they meet the needs of various user groups. Notably, park use is particularly low among teenagers and adults aged 65 years and older.
Our research has important messages for local government, park planners and designers.
We need to prioritise the greening of parks and public spaces to include shady trees, landscaping, gardens, and a lush environment with birdlife that creates a feeling of being in nature rather than just an open space with amenities. It is also important to allocate funding for ongoing maintenance, so our parks do not become bare and lifeless or overgrown and dilapidated. Our participants told us they are more likely to visit a park that looks appealing, regardless of what other amenities are available.
Parks that are well designed and meet the needs of all age groups can provide valuable opportunities for everyone to be active and social, fostering good health, good spirits, and a happy community.
Investigators: Associate Professor Jenny Veitch, Professor Anna Timperio, Professor Kylie Ball, Professor Benedicte Deforche, Elise Rivera (PhD candidate)
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