What the data says about playspace inequity Link copied!

May 23, 2022


Access to play looks different in each community, so it’s critical that decision makers are equipped with high quality local data about who has access to quality playspaces and who doesn’t. Patterns of racial exclusion, infrastructure challenges, and economic trends are just a few factors that affect the ability of kids to reach a safe playground or park.

That’s why KABOOM! recently announced a new, community-informed research effort to map playspace inequity in three Colorado communities. The 18-month project hit an important milestone recently with the release of a field scan that summarizes existing research on playspace inequity in Colorado and nationwide. To understand what the data says, we spoke with two members of a research team based at North Carolina State University who are supporting the initiative.

After years studying hospitality and tourism management, Jing-Huei Huang had an epiphany. “From the perspective of local communities, I realized I want to focus on residents’ quality of life and their needs rather than satisfying tourists and generating revenue.” Huang shared on a recent Zoom call.

This shift in perspective led her to become a postdoctoral researcher focusing on environmental spaces that encourage active living. Now, Huang is part of the research team at North Carolina State University that is partnering with KABOOM!, the Colorado Health Foundation, and local communities to map play deserts in three Colorado counties.

But before the initiative narrows its focus on three communities in Colorado, Jing-Huei and her team dug through decades of research papers and reports about the state of playspace inequity statewide and nationally. They summarized their findings in a new report, Review of Studies and Data on Playspace Equity for Children.

The team uncovered powerful lessons for parks and recreation professionals, policymakers, and others invested in equity and children’s health. Here are four key insights that they summarize:

  1. Lower socioeconomic status, racial and ethnic minority, and rural populations have more limited access to playspaces in neighborhoods, parks, and schools compared to wealthier, white, and urban groups. This is the core finding of the report: that race, class, and location matter when we look at a community’s ability to access great spaces for play.
  2. In some communities, access distance to playspaces is equitable, but the quality of facilities and amenities within playspaces is inequitable and restricts opportunities for play. This finding shows us how playspace inequity is about the number of playgrounds and parks available in a given community, but also the size and quality of those spaces. The mere presence of a playspace nearby doesn’t guarantee that the space is designed with the needs of local kids and families in mind, or that it is well maintained.
  3. Adverse physical and social conditions in some low-income and racial and ethnic diverse neighborhoods may limit access to playspaces, such as limited public and active transportation opportunities, personal safety concerns, lack of inclusion, and low public awareness. When we spoke with Aaron Hipp, another researcher on the team, he underscored why easy access matters even more in communities that face time constraints, “We can’t understate the importance of being able to easily get to places for play. It’s especially important in communities where hourly wage jobs and limited transit options are the norm.” The ways in which these spaces are designed, built, and promoted has a significant impact on who ends up feeling welcome and included. The same is true of programming, which can alienate residents who don’t feel like events and activities reflect their local culture, needs, and desires.
  4. Disparities in access and quality of playspaces could result from historical and contemporary forms of systemic racism, such as racially discriminatory land use and housing policies. Our nation’s long history of racial segregation and disinvestment in public amenities shaped how cities and towns look today, which is to say deeply unequal. Modern forms of housing discrimination, exclusionary zoning, gentrification, and other harmful policies prevent BIPOC communities from enjoying spaces for recreation, even where they do exist. Combined with personal acts of hostility (toward Black birdwatchers and barbequers, for example) these policies contribute to continued patterns of exclusion.

While these themes are troubling, research also points to a number of promising practices that leaders at all levels can use to increase access and inclusion, such as targeting new playspaces in communities with the highest need and forging broad partnerships across sectors.

These approaches form the foundation of the KABOOM! 25 in 5 Initiative to End Playspace Inequity, a five year, $250 million plan to accelerate efforts towards achieving playspace equity across the United States. Through the Initiative, we will identify the specific playspace inequities and gaps in access to quality playspaces in local systems to ensure places to play are built where there is the greatest need.

The next phase of the Colorado project will gather data on the location and quality of existing playspaces in the East Colfax Corridor, Otero County, and Rio Grande County. We will then overlay racial, economic, and public health data to create community profiles for each region that outline key learnings and actionable recommendations.

As the work progresses, we are excited to share lessons learned so that people invested in making sure all kids are active and healthy have the strength of data behind them to make informed decisions with the best interests of children in mind.

Read more and download the full report here.