The primary purpose of this study was to examine the degree of correspondence between perceived and objectively-measured proximity to participants' closest park and how the level of correspondence varied according to several intrapersonal, neighborhood, and park-related variables. Achieving a match is important because people are unlikely to make use of PA resources of which they are unaware. Thus, it is important for park managers and other public health professionals to understand the public's awareness of facilities and services, what factors are associated with greater awareness, and how this familiarity might be enhanced.
In this study, we observed very poor agreement between perceived and objective proximity to parks, as indicated by a match for only 18% of participants and a kappa value of only 0.01. Other studies have reported similarly low levels of correspondence. For example, like our study, Kirtland et al. [17
] reported a kappa value of 0.01 for survey and GIS measures for the presence of a park, playground, or sports field (grouped together) within 10 miles. Somewhat better, another study reported a kappa value of 0.39 ('fair' agreement) for a self-report measure of whether a park was within a 5-minute walk and whether one actually existed within 400 m of the respondent [14
Other studies have more closely examined the direction or source of the mismatch. In Macintyre et al.'s [17
] study of whether people reported and actually lived within a half-mile of a public green park, 62% (408/658) of respondents correctly predicted the presence or absence of a park within 0.5 miles - 355 (54%) said they lived within a half-mile of a park and they actually did, while 53 (8%) said they did not live near a park and GIS measurements confirmed this. However, for the remaining 250 people (38%) for which a match between self-reported and measured distance to a park was not observed, 51 (8%) believed there was no park within a half mile when there actually was, while 199 (30%) believed they lived within a half mile of a park but GIS measurements did not confirm their perceptions. Although that study achieved somewhat higher levels of agreement (62%), but a similarly poor kappa value (0.095), the source of disagreement was actually somewhat reversed compared to the present study. In Macintyre et al.'s study, a much greater percentage of those who incorrectly perceived the presence or absence of a nearby park were people who believed they lived within a half-mile of a park but really did not. In contrast, the present study reported a lack of awareness in that 79% of the sample (or 97% of the mismatched respondents) lived within 750 m of a park but stated they did not. Our results are similar to those of another study in which 76.5% of respondents overestimated the distance to their closest park (when given several categorical distance options), 15.3% correctly estimated the distance, and 8.2% underestimated the distance [16
]. Another study reported a kappa value of 0.15 in which 81% of respondents to a survey said they lived within 0.5 miles of a park, whereas only 62% actually lived with 0.4 miles of a park [26
]. Overall, the sources of disagreement have varied but past studies have generally reported poor correspondence between perceived and objective proximity to parks. These findings are consistent with conclusions from geography that people misestimate distances relative to their place of residence [33
In this study, several variables were significant predictors of increased or reduced odds of achieving a match between perceived and objective proximity to parks. For example, with respect to socio-demographic characteristics, there was better correspondence for people who were younger, more educated, had children, and were a healthy weight. Further, a match was more likely among people who did not own a fitness facility membership and those who had engaged in at least-some park-based PA, with the latter finding being not surprising and perhaps suggesting a cyclical effect between park use and awareness. Similarly, a past study reported that more active people showed greater agreement for subjective and objective measures of proximity to recreation facilities, but not for many other environmental resources [15
We also found that greater perceptions of neighborhood cohesion and lower perceptions of neighborhood aesthetics were associated with increased odds of achieving a match. Much research has suggested that constructs related to social capital have important implications for health [34
]. In showing that perceptions of cohesion also increase awareness of neighborhood resources for PA, our findings add to the importance of urban planning that fosters improved bonds among residents and their communities. On the other hand, the finding about aesthetics is counterintuitive. It may be that persons living in aesthetically pleasing environments have less reason to seek out the environmentally-friendly confines of parks, but this and other hypotheses require exploration in future research. Finally, perceptions of neighborhood safety were unrelated to achieving a match. Past research has shown safety to be an important influence on PA behaviors [37
], but such perceptions may not influence simple awareness of resources.
Finally, the level of correspondence between perceived and objective proximity was a function of several park-related variables. The number of parks within 750 m and the number of features in the closest park increased the odds of achieving a match, while the size of and distance to the closest park were not significant. These results are consistent with past research about important influences on park-based PA [11
]. As well, having a playground or wooded area in the closest park was positively related to achieving a match, while having a ball diamond or soccer field was negatively related to achieving a match. It is, as yet, unclear whether the size (e.g., a large wooded area) or prominence (e.g., a colorful playground) of park features, or both, are more important for improving park awareness. However, some research has suggested that the intensity of park-based PA varies by activity area [40
] and that certain park features more strongly influence the likelihood of PA occurring in parks [11
]. Therefore, park awareness may be improved to the extent that the features in proximal parks are those that encourage use for PA or other active or non-active behaviors.
A secondary purpose of this study was to examine whether perceived or objective proximity to parks was more strongly related to a participant engaging in at least some neighborhood-based PA or at least some park-based PA. Objectively-measured proximity to a park was associated with neighborhood-based PA, but perceived proximity was not. It may be that having a park nearby (within 750 m in this case) facilitates an aesthetically and environmentally-pleasing setting that consciously or unconsciously encourages greater levels of activity in the vicinity of one's home. Another study found similar results in that the number of parks and the total area of parkland within 1 km of respondents' homes was related to greater levels of PA in the neighborhood [30
]. Future research should examine the direct and indirect mechanisms by which proximal parks facilitate PA in different settings.
However, neither perceived nor objective proximity to a park within 750 m were related to engaging in at least some park-based PA. A recent study also reported that objectively-measured distance to the closest park was unrelated to engaging in park-based PA [30
]. Likewise, with respect to perceptions, most studies have shown a general lack of awareness of nearby parks which would assumedly limit their use for PA by residents. Several studies have suggested that the content and design of parks may be more important than their proximity for encouraging PA [8
]. For example, one study of parents reported that only 49% frequented the closest park to their starting destination, and instead, the majority chose to travel a significant distance (in some cases over 4 km) to attend parks with certain amenities [41
]. Other research is starting to illuminate which features of parks are more conducive to promoting PA [11
]. Park planners should keep in mind that neither perceived nor objective proximity may be the most important factors to consider when designing parks to encourage PA.
However, when a match occurred between perceived and objective proximity to a park within 750 m, a significant positive relationship was observed with the likelihood of engaging in park-based PA. Consequently, complementary efforts should be undertaken to both locate parks appropriately and promote their availability and features to residents [19
]. A past study showed that even among people who had heard of several given parks, very few were knowledgeable about the specific features contained within them [44
]. The budgets of park planners for promotional materials are often limited, but the present findings suggest that investments to communicate the whereabouts of parks and their specific features may pay off in terms of improved use for PA.