Designing Parks for Healthier Lifestyles

Where some see a park bench in the shade of an oak, Drs. Myron Floyd and Karla Henderson of the College of Natural Resources see an invitation to sedentary activity. Where others see an open, grassy field for a weekend picnic or lying in the sun, the researchers see opportunities for physical activity that are underutilized.

“There’s been a lot of research on physical activity, but little that looks at how parks contribute to that.”

Together with colleagues in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management, Floyd and Henderson have created Investigating Places for Active Recreation in Communities (IPARC), a program that studies ways communities can design and manage parks and recreational programs better to promote active lifestyles by youths and adults. “There’s been a lot of research on physical activity,” Floyd says, “but there’s been little that looks at how parks and natural environments contribute to that.”

In a study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has made ending childhood obesity a top priority, Floyd found that about half of the people visiting Chicago parks and nearly three-fourths of those in Tampa were engaged in sedentary activities. Those numbers relate to how the parks are designed and operated, he says. Tampa’s parks feature more picnic areas and shelters, while Chicago’s have more athletic fields and walking paths. “We don’t characterize them as good parks or bad parks but look only at how conducive they are to activity,” he says. Soccer fields, basketball courts, and walking paths score high, he says, while baseball fields and shelters promote less activity.

IPARC researchers have also found that teens are more sedentary in parks than 6- to 12-year-olds and children are less active when adults are around, reining them in and trying to organize their play. Henderson says parks must meet the needs of these age groups, as well as those of young and older adults, so IPARC hosted a conference last April for parks officials to provide information on how to do it.

The IPARC program studies ways communities can design and manage parks and recreational programs better to promote active lifestyles by youth and adults.

Sharing the research findings should influence public policy discussions on how parks can be built or redesigned with improved public health in mind, Henderson says. She and Floyd point to a 2007 survey by IPARC that found that less than half of North Carolina’s local parks directors felt residents would pay more for parks featuring amenities to encourage activity. “Different groups of people want different things out of parks,” Henderson says. “We hope our research can put the pieces together to help officials configure parks to serve everyone better.”


Drs. Karla Henderson and Myron Floyd hope their research on activity patterns at parks helps shape public policy on designing parks to improve people’s health.