Most of the survey population perceived that they had access to a community park, and this percentage did not differ by race/ethnicity. Most people with access to a community park reported using it in the past year, and use did not differ by race/ethnicity, even though social (ie, safety concerns) and physical (ie, poor quality of facilities) environmental barriers to park use were more likely to have been reported by minority racial/ethnic groups. In addition, Hispanics were more likely than whites to be active park users. These results suggest that racial/ethnic disparities in physical activity cannot all be explained by disparities in access to community parks and active park use (2
Prevalence of any park use did not vary significantly by race/ethnicity. In a sample limited to respondents from 2 metropolitan areas in the eastern United States (Atlanta, Georgia, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), Koreans, Hispanics, and whites were most likely and African Americans were least likely to visit a park in the previous year. In a nationwide sample, however, no significant association was found between race/ethnicity and park use (21
We observed difference in the likelihood of an active park visit by race/ethnicity. The likelihood of an active visit was lower among non-Hispanic blacks than non-Hispanic whites, while non-Hispanic whites and Hispanics were as likely to have an active visit. The opposite effect was observed in Chicago park users: park users in African American neighborhoods were more likely than whites to be observed in physical activity (16
). In another Illinois study, however, researchers found similar results to ours: non-Hispanic blacks were less likely to participate in active park activities, especially walking (14
). Results among Hispanics were similar to other US studies that have found Hispanics to be more likely than non-Hispanic whites to participate in group sports (15
). Other research has found that Hispanics were more likely to participate in sedentary activities (ie, picnicking, lounging in the grass, sitting on park benches) (17
), but we observed no differences for Hispanics in the participation in more sedentary activities.
The association between personal safety concerns and any park use differed by race/ethnicity; non-Hispanic whites and blacks were less likely to use a park if they reported a safety concern. However, Hispanics were not less likely to use a park if they reported a safety concern. In an analysis restricted to 8 parks in minority communities, concerns about park safety did not predict park use (22
). Other researchers have hypothesized that different racial groups may have different methods for coping with concerns, so barriers may have less of an influence on behavior (19
). For example, parenting strategies implemented by African Americans, such as the use of kinship networks and neighborhood organizations, allowed some children in urban neighborhoods to participate in leisure activities available in their neighborhood, despite risks (crime, violence, limited resources) (23
). Future research should examine how barriers may differentially affect park use among different racial/ethnic groups.
The percentage of respondents who reported that inadequate or poorly maintained facilities were a barrier to any park use differed by race/ethnicity. At least 2 potential reasons explain these differences: lack of resources or funding for parks in minority communities and differences in how different racial/ethnic groups use parks. An example of the latter is that Hispanics were more likely than non-Hispanic whites to report the status of park facilities as being a barrier to park use, perhaps because they are more likely than non-Hispanic whites to participate in group or individual sports that require specific facilities. This may also be in part why no association was observed between reporting the status of park facilities as being a barrier and park use. That is, park users may be more aware than nonusers of the status of the facilities because they use the park. The extent to which the presence and quality of specific facilities predict park use among various racial/ethnic groups should be addressed in future studies.
Study limitations included the sample selection bias associated with the use of data from a mail panel survey of volunteers. The sample was, however, drawn from a large, broad, community-dwelling population, and the demographic distribution of sample members was similar to US census population projections, except for differences caused by oversampling of low-income households and households with children.
Another limitation was lack of data on exact distance that respondents lived from a community park; such data may have helped us more precisely describe Americans' use of community parks and would have allowed us to examine the influence of proximity of the community park on our outcomes of interest. Previous studies of the association between environmental features and physical activity have used a variety of spatial referents (24
), and our definition of a community as within 10 miles or a 20-minute drive has been used in studies that have found a correlation between participation in physical activity and access to community facilities (25
Information on frequency and time spent doing each activity at a park was lacking, and respondents could select activities from a list of 9. We used a broad definition of an active park visit. Future studies would benefit from obtaining more information about specific activities park users participate in, as well as the intensity, frequency, and duration of their participation, to allow for a more precise definition of active community park use.
Finally, this study relied on survey respondents' reported perception of their access to community parks and barriers to park use. We had no information on the reliability or validity of our self-report measures. At least 1 study has shown that reported access may not reflect more objectively measured access (25
). However, people's perceived access to parks or other recreational facilities at the very least may include their awareness of a park in a certain area and the ease of accessibility. The Guide to Community Preventive Services
) recommends not only increased access to facilities but increased access together with informational outreach, thereby highlighting a person's awareness of and perceptions about a location, which a measure of perceived access may capture.
Our findings suggest that parks are valuable community resources across all segments of the population. Parks provide opportunities for physical activity and enhance the social fabric of the community through gatherings and picnics. As the fields of parks and recreation and public health continue to collaborate to promote physical activity in parks, personnel in both fields should be mindful of how parks are used by different racial/ethnic groups, and how potential barriers differentially influence park use, to appropriately customize parks and park programs for the target communities.