Kansas City Parks and Physical Activity Project

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Investigating Park Environments and Physical Activity

This page primarily describes the project component entitled "Investigating Park Environments and Physical Activity", which employed three integrated methodologies – observations of park users, park environment audits, and park visitor surveys – to investigate the role of park environments in facilitating physical activity. Please read on to learn more about the project.

Project Team

Dr. Andrew Kaczynski, Kansas State University, Co-PI
Dr. Sonja Wilhelm Stanis, University of Missouri, Co-PI
Bryon Rochon, University of Missouri, Research Assistant
Tanis Hastmann, Kansas State University, Research Assistant
Gina Besenyi, Kansas State University, Research Assistant

Study Background and Objectives

Physical inactivity is now widely recognized as a significant public health concern because of its association with an increased risk of premature death, obesity, and numerous chronic diseases. Although much past research and health promotion efforts have treated physical inactivity as an individual choice, a growing and convincing body of evidence indicates that many attributes of the built and social environments facilitate or restrict the opportunities people have to be physically active. With this broadened perspective on determinants of health and PA has come an increased appreciation for the role of parks in serving as settings for people to be active in. Nevertheless, many park visitors remain sedentary during their visits and information regarding factors that influence and facilitate PA in parks is still limited. Moreover, beyond simple observations of visitors' behaviors, which often do not provide a complete picture of their total PA within the park, surveys of park users can provide valuable information about their park visitation patterns, origins, motivations, constraints, socio-demographic characteristics, overall behaviors during their visit, and other important contextual details. In general, the use of complementary methodologies can provide a more comprehensive picture of park-based PA that can inform the thoughtful design and effective promotion of parks as community PA resources. However, no study to date has combined systematic observation of park-based PA with valid and reliable audits of park environments or park visitor surveys.


The purpose of this study was to employ a multi-method approach to examine the role of park environments in facilitating physical activity and factors that influence park physical activity participation. Specifically, the primary objectives were to:

  • Better understand the amount of physical activity that occurs in parks, including its intensity (sedentary, moderate, or strenuous) and duration.
  • Examine the level of physical activity that occurs in different areas of park environments.
  • Assess park users' perspectives (e.g., motivations, constraints, visitation patterns, use behaviors, important site characteristics) on the role of these parks in their physical activity participation.

Study Methods

The study occurred in July-August 2009 and involved three integrated components: i) observation of PA in parks, ii) audits of the physical park environment, and iii) on-site surveys with park users. Four parks in Kansas City, Missouri (26-129 acres each) were divided into 14-28 observable target areas per park (e.g., trails, playground, open space). A modified version of the System for Observing Play and Recreation in Communities (SOPARC; McKenzie et al., 2006) was used to record the physical activity of park users by gender (male, female), age (child, teen, adult, senior), race/ethnicity (White, Asian, Black, Hispanic, Other), and intensity level (sedentary, moderate, vigorous). Each park was observed for a total of 39 hours (Friday-Sunday, 7am-8pm) which were spread across two weekends (6 days total) per park. Inter-observer reliability tests yielded intraclass correlations across raters that ranged from 0.89 to 0.98 for all recorded user characteristics. Data on park characteristics were collected via detailed park audits using the Environmental Assessment of Public Recreation Spaces (EAPRS) instrument (Saelens et al., 2006) by two trained raters just prior to PA observations being collected in the parks. Brief, onsite, self-administered questionnaires were utilized to collect information on visitor motivations, constraints, important site characteristics, PA, demographics, and other visit and visitor characteristics. Corresponding with park observations (two weekends, Friday-Sunday, 7am-8pm), visitors 18 years and older were systematically sampled resulting in a final sample of 474 respondents (60.5% response rate).


For more information, please contact:

Dr. Andrew Kaczynski
Physical Activity and Public Health Laboratory
Department of Kinesiology
1A Natatorium
Kansas State University
Manhattan, Kansas 66506
Dr. Sonja Wilhelm Stanis
Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism
School of Natural Resources
105e Anheuser-Busch Natural Resources Bldg
University of Missouri
Columbia, Missouri 65221


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