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Research and Innovation

Study Raises Questions About Access to Urban Parks During the Pandemic

A park in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Credit: Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources.

For Immediate Release

Lincoln Larson
Laura Oleniacz, NC State News Services

A new study found the use of outdoor parks and trails in urban areas of North Carolina declined during two summer months of 2020 – contrary to anecdotal reports of a spike in new users during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study also found that the drop-off in urban park access was more likely to impact minorities and people from lower-income backgrounds.

“Visitation declined in urban and county parks pretty consistently across the state, and it dropped even more sharply among people who rarely used parks before COVID-19 and people who are lower income or racial and ethnic minorities,” said the study’s lead author Lincoln Larson, associate professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at North Carolina State University.

For the study, researchers combined survey responses and cell phone tracking data to understand outdoor urban park use across the state during the pandemic last summer. They surveyed 611 residents of metropolitan areas of North Carolina in August 2020 and asked them to compare their use of outdoor park spaces during the pandemic to the same month in 2019. They also analyzed anonymous cell phone location data, gathered by the company SafeGraph, for people who used their phones at points of interest with “park” in the name across 66 urban areas during July 2020 and 2019.

When researchers analyzed survey data, they found that, statewide, nearly 56% of people said they stopped or decreased their use of open spaces and trails in August of 2020. Approximately 27% said their park usage didn’t change, and 16% reported increased use.

 “Our data runs counter to the narrative that people were flocking to parks like never before,” Larson said. “When we dug into the data, we also found issues of equity and access.” 

People who were already likely to visit parks before the pandemic, a group that was more likely to be white, Hispanic or higher-income, were most likely to use parks during the pandemic. Frequent park users pre-pandemic were 23 times more likely to increase their park use during the pandemic compared with people who didn’t visit parks before COVID-19. Sporadic park users were nine times more likely to increase their park use. Higher income people were the least likely to stop using parks.

“We know that, historically, park use has been highest among higher income, white populations,” Larson said. “During the pandemic, while certain people visited parks more, it tended to be people who were already using them. There’s a social justice issue here.”

The cell phone data analysis also revealed a decline in overall park visitation in urban areas, with visits down 15% from 2019 to 2020. While the cell phone data could have picked up people located anywhere within the boundaries of a park, researchers speculated that many visitors were likely outdoors in 2020 due to closures of indoor facilities.

Using census data, the researchers found links between measures of social vulnerability and park visitation. Specifically, they saw a trend of census tracts with lower socioeconomic status linked with lower park visitation. Areas with more people who identified as Black, Indigenous, Hispanic or Latinx, Middle Eastern or North African or “other,” were also more likely to see declines in park visits.

“We know that parks are really important in terms of mental health, especially during the pandemic, when being outdoors was considered more of a safe space, but this suggests not all segments of the population were realizing those benefits,” Larson said. “Like many things during COVID-19, the disparities are getting worse. We need to think longer and harder about park equity and access across racial, ethnic and income boundaries.”

Researchers cautioned that the study focused on urban and suburban areas, and did not look at national or state parks in more rural areas, However, they did underscore that their findings show the need to make sure that all people, across racial, ethnic, and income levels, have access to parks in urban areas. They also said finding ways to keep parks open and utilized in low-income areas is critical.

“These findings should inspire parks and recreation professionals to look at their planning and outreach processes to determine if they are engaging socially vulnerable populations,” said study co-author Matt Carusona, director of programs and marketing for the N.C. Recreation and Park Association, an organization that helped fund the study.

“Not only do parks and recreation professionals need to make sure that socially vulnerable people have access to parks, but they also need to review if they are creating a welcoming atmosphere for their entire community. Ensuring marketing and outreach efforts are inclusive and appropriate for all is important, and so is having a community planning process for parks and recreation that is accessible to diverse communities – especially during a pandemic.”

The study, “Urban park use during the COVID-19 pandemic: are socially vulnerable communities disproportionately impacted?” was published online in Frontiers in Sustainable Cities on Sept. 29, 2021. It was authored by Larson, Carusona, along with Zhenzhen Zhang, Jae I. Oh, Will Beam, S. Ogletree Jason R. Bocarro, KangJae J. Lee, Jonathan M. Casper, Kathryn T. Stevenson, James A. Hipp and Michelle Wells.


Note to editors: The abstract follows.

“Urban park use during the COVID-19 pandemic: are socially vulnerable communities disproportionately impacted?”

Authors: Lincoln R. Larson, Zhenzhen Zhang, Jae I. Oh, Will Beam, S. Ogletree Jason R. Bocarro, KangJae J. Lee, Jonathan M. Casper, Kathryn T. Stevenson, James A. Hipp, Matt Carusona and Michelle Wells.

Published online Sept. 29, 2021, in Frontiers in Sustainable Cities

Abstract: The COVID-19 pandemic altered human behavior around the world. To maintain mental and physical health during periods of lockdown and quarantine, people often engaged in outdoor, physically distanced activities such as visits to parks and greenspace. However, research tracking outdoor recreation patterns during the pandemic have yielded inconsistent results, and few studies have explored the impacts of COVID-19 on park use across diverse neighborhoods. We used a mixed methods approach to examine changes in park use patterns in cities across North Carolina, USA, during the COVID-19 pandemic, with an emphasis on impacts in socially vulnerable communities (based on racial/ethnic composition and socioeconomic status). First, we surveyed a demographically representative sample of 611 urban residents during August 2020 to assess their use of outdoor park spaces before and during the pandemic. Second, we used cell phone location (i.e, geo-tracking) data to document changes in park visits within 605 socioeconomically diverse urban census tracts before (July 2019) and during (July 2020) the pandemic. Data from both methods revealed urban park use declined during the pandemic; 56% of survey respondents said they stopped or reduced park use, and geo-tracked park visits dropped by 15%. Park users also became more homogenous, with visits increasing the most for past park visitors and declining the most in socially vulnerable communities and among individuals who were BIPOC or lower-income. Our results raise concerns about urban park use during the COVID-19 pandemic and suggest pre-existing health disparities in socially vulnerable communities might be exacerbated by inequitable access and utilization of parks and greenspace.