Case Study

 

City of Atlanta Parks and Recreation Equity Data Tool: A Decision-Making Tool for Prioritizing Parks, Recreation Centers, and Neighborhoods with the Greatest Need

 

Diamond Spratling1 and Giselle Sebag2

1Bloomberg Associates, U.S.A.

2The International Society for Urban Health, Madrid, Spain

 

Keywords: parks, life expectancy, access, equity, environmental health, physical activity, social determinants of health, greenspace

 


 


     In the United States today, zip code is the single greatest predictor of life expectancy. Neighborhood disparities contribute to babies being born just miles apart within the City of Atlanta with life expectancy differences of up to a 23-years (Arias et. al, 2018). Life expectancy is contingent on a wide variety of physical, social and behavioral factors. One of the most important behavior determinants of health is physical activity. Physical activity can reduce risk of coronary heart disease, hypertension, colon cancer, diabetes, and obesity (Warburton et al., 2006). Researchers have shown that moderate to severe obesity may reduce life-expectancy by three to 10 years (Prospective Studies Collaboration et al., 2009). However, behaviors are modifiable by physical factors, such as when people have increased access to parks and greenspaces, they are more likely to walk and engage in physical activity, thereby reducing their risk for obesity and other associated health outcomes (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021). Atlanta’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) Commissioner, John Dargle, Jr., recognized this reality and made improvements to citywide health equity a central piece of DPR’s 10-year comprehensive master plan, ActivateATL: Recreation and Parks for All.  ActivateATL is aimed at increasing access to exceptional recreational programming, fostering community connections to nature through parks and trails, and ultimately, improving the health, happiness, and resilience of all Atlantans, in all neighborhoods. To identify these inequities, monitor and evaluate progress, the Atlanta DPR Department partnered with Bloomberg Associates to develop a first-of-its-kind parks and recreation equity data tool.

     The data tool is designed to measure health equity across Atlanta by each individual park and recreation center, census tract, and maintenance district. A total of 375 parks and 19 recreation centers are included in the data tool. The objectives of the tool are to (a) prioritize parks, recreation centers, and the surrounding neighborhoods with the greatest need for park investment and capital improvement in the DPR 10-year comprehensive master plan, ActivateATL, (b) track improvements in park and recreation conditions, community perceptions of Atlanta parks, life expectancy, and neighborhood determinants of health, and (c) link parks and recreation and the health benefits they offer to citywide equity and life expectancy, with the longer-term goal of helping to decrease disparities among Atlanta neighborhoods.

     Atlanta’s DPR, in collaboration with other city agencies, nonprofit partners, and the general public, can use this data-driven tool to make evidence-based decisions that improve Atlanta’s extensive parks and recreation system in the areas that need it most, therefore improving health equity and outcomes over time.

Background

     The Atlanta metropolitan area is home to over 10 million people with more than 500,000 residents living within the city limits themselves (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019). Atlanta is demographically diverse, comprising of Black (50%), White (38%), and Hispanic (8%) racial and ethnic groups (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019). Though one of the largest metropolitan cities in the southern United States, Atlanta is known for its unique and expansive urban greenspace.

     Atlanta’s defining natural feature is its forest, renowned for the expansive tree canopy and the verdant wilderness that inhabits it. Atlanta has been known as the “City in the Forest” for more than 80 years and was named the ‘most livable’ city, per GeoTab’s 2019 report, “Urban Footprint: The Allocation of Space in U.S. Cities”, due to Atlanta boasting more greenspace per resident than any other major U.S. city —with 17.8 square miles of greenspace, each Atlanta resident could theoretically use their own 1,023 square feet slice of parks, forests, and other greenery within the city limits (Keenan, 2019). With nearly 48% of the total land area covered in tree canopy, Atlanta has the largest urban tree canopy of any significant U.S. city and one of the largest across the entire United States (Keenan, 2019).

     However, despite Atlanta being known for its green assets, there are still many disparities in the quality of greenspaces and non-motorized access to public park spaces. Many of these disparities can be traced back to neighborhood, zip code or geography. For example, dozens of neighborhoods lack a park or recreation center within a 10-minute walk, regardless of Atlanta’s Parks and Recreation system including over 400 greenspaces and 27 recreation centers spread across the city, including the flagship Frederick Law Olmsted designed Piedmont Park, the Beltline and the new Westside Quarry Park, among others. Moreover, many neighborhoods do not have safe pedestrian routes connecting public parks, forcing residents to drive, which pits healthy physical activity opportunities against the risk of road accidents and injury.

     After evaluating a wide variety of neighborhood determinants of health across the city, it was clear that access to greenspace was not the sole health equity issue. Neighborhoods across Atlanta differ widely in determinants of health and related health outcomes, including overall life expectancy. For example, physical inactivity ranges from 10% to 46% and obesity prevalence ranges from 16% to 44% across Atlanta neighborhoods, (Department of Population Health, NYU Langone Health, 2021).

Methodology

     The creation of the parks and recreation equity data tool began with a scan of parks’ equity plans from other peer cities across the United States. The plans evaluated included those from Miami-Dade, Boston, New York City, Seattle, East Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Denver, Raleigh, and Minneapolis. Reviewing each of these plans was essential to better understanding which methodologies were most often employed and to evaluate trends in the types of data typically included in park plans, to help guide our decision-making for developing the park and recreation equity data tool methodology. We also conducted a literature review and consulted with six different parks and health experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Georgia Institute of Technology, and Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia to validate our methodology and to gather additional insights about what data would be most useful for linking parks and recreation to health equity. In each consultation, we asked the subject-matter experts to review our methodology and selected indicators. We then asked for feedback regarding the indicators that were most critical to measure in order to determine citywide parks and health equity based on their evidence-based opinions, and their rationale. These consultations were conducted individually through online video conferencing for the duration of one hour each. We also solicited feedback in identifying additional indicators that were not presented in the initial list and talked through data collection strategies and challenges that may limit our measurements.

     The data tool included six different categories of scored information: park conditions and funding, recreation center conditions and funding, level of service, community need, maintenance funding, and community perspectives. Each category was comprised of many different composite indicators and data. For a full list of composite indicators, see Table 1 below.

     The indicators were made of various pieces of data, each stemming from different sources. Data sources included DPR-collected data, American Community Survey data, Georgia Electronic Accident Reporting System (GEARS), and other publicly available data, as seen in Table 1.  


 

Table 1. A Breakdown of Data included in the Methodology

 

Park Conditions and Funding Score

Data Included

Geographic Level

Data  Source

Temporal Year

 

Access and Visibility

ADA Compliance

Park Level

DPR

2020

 

Visibility from a Distance

Park Level

DPR

2020

 

Comfort and Image

Cleanliness/overall quality of maintenance (Exterior Site)

 

Park Level

DPR

2020

 

Protection from bad weather

 

Park Level

DPR

2020

 

Condition and Effectiveness of any Equipment or Operating Systems

 

Park Level

DPR

2020

 

Park Programming and Activities

Mix of uses/ things to do

 

Park Level

DPR

2020

 

Ability of facility to effectively support current organized programming

 

Park Level

DPR

2020

 

Environmental Sustainability

Stormwater Management

 

Park Level

DPR

2020

 

  Linkages and Location

Multi-modal Capacity

 

Park Level

DPR

2020

 

Park Funding

Public capital improvement funding

Park Level

DPR

2015-2020

 

Private capital improvement and maintenance funding

Park Level

Private/ philanthropic donors

2015-2020

Recreation Conditions and Funding Score

Data Included

Geographic Level

Data   Source

Temporal Year

 

Recreation Conditions

Aesthetics

Rec Level

DPR

2020

 

Clarity of Entry

Rec Level

DPR

2020

 

Interior Finishes

 

Rec Level

DPR

2020

 

Functioning Dimensions

 

Rec Level

DPR

2020

 

Building Structure

 

Rec Level

DPR

2020

 

Recreation Funding

Public capital improvement funding

 

Rec Level

DPR

2015-2020

 

Private capital improvement and maintenance funding

 

Rec Level

DPR

2015-2020

 

Level of Service Score

Data Included

Geographic Level

Data  Source

Temporal Year

 

Access Level of Service

Census tract area

Census tract

American Community Survey

2014-2018 5-Year ACS

 

Area of geographic access

Census tract

ActivateATL Analysis

2020

 

Percentage of greenspace access

 

Census tract

ActivateATL Analysis

2020

 

Acreage Level of Service

Census tract area

 

Census tract

American Community Survey

2014-2018 5-Year ACS

 

Greenspace area

 

Census tract

DPR, Atlanta Regional Commission, Dekalb County

2020

 

Percent greenspace

Census tract

 ActivateATL Analysis

2020

 

Population

Census tract

American Community Survey

2018

 

Community Need Score

Data Included

Geographic Level

Data   Source

Temporal Year

 

Concentration of Vulnerable Age Groups

Adults age 65 and older

Census tract

American Community Survey

2018

 

Children age 5 and younger

Census tract

American Community Survey

2018

 

Racial and Ethnic Diversity

Racial and ethnic diversity

Census tract

American Community Survey

2020

 

Income and Educational Disparities

High school completion

 

Census tract

American Community Survey

2018

 

School enrollment

Census tract

American Community Survey

2018

 

Income inequality

 

Census tract

American Community Survey

2018

 

Vulnerable Housing Conditions

Housing values

 

Census tract

American Community Survey

2018

 

Housing unaffordability

Census tract

American Community Survey

2018

 

Gross rent above $1,500

Census tract

American Community Survey

2018

 

Household income under $25,000

Census tract

American Community Survey

2018

 

Violent Crime/Safety Incidents

Violent crime

 

Data points

Atlanta Police Department

2020

 

Transportation Environments

Vehicle only involved accidents

Data points

Georgia Electronic Accident Reporting System (GEARS)

2020

 

Bicycle involved accidents

Data points

Georgia Electronic Accident Reporting System (GEARS)

2020

 

Pedestrian involved accidents

Data points

Georgia Electronic Accident Reporting System (GEARS)

2020

 

Environmental Health

Lead exposure

Census tract

American Community Survey

2018

 

Particulate matter exposure

Census tract

Community Multiscale Air Quality model, US Environmental Protection Agency

2016

 

Street Connectivity

Walk Score

Neighborhood

Redfin Real Estate in Atlanta

2013

 

Bike Score

Neighborhood

Redfin Real Estate in Atlanta

2013

 

Transit Score

Neighborhood

Redfin Real Estate in Atlanta

2013

 

Concentration of sidewalks (near parks and rec centers)

Data points

Atlanta City Planning

2020

 

Food Environment

Farmer’s market

Data points

USDA

2019

 

Grocery retail locations

Data points

Nielsen TDLinx

2016

 

Low USDA food access

Data points

USDA

2015

 

Life Expectancy

Life expectancy

Census tract

National Center for Health Statistics

2018

 

Maintenance Level Score

Data Included

Geographic Level

Data Source

Temporal Year

 

Maintenance Funding

Public maintenance funding

Maintenance district

DPR

2015-2020

 

Community Perceptions

Park and recreation needs

 

Maintenance district

DPR

2020

 

Reasons discouraging use of parks

 

Maintenance district

DPR

2020

 

Quality of parks and recreation activities and events

Maintenance district

DPR

2020

 

Physical condition of parks and recreation

Maintenance district

DPR

2020

 

Greatest park concerns

Maintenance district

DPR

2020

 

 


Scoring System

     One of the outputs of this methodology is that we were able to evaluate parks, recreation centers, and their surrounding neighborhoods by scoring them based on relative need, as compared to the rest of the City of Atlanta. In order to develop the scoring system, all of the raw data used in the tool was normalized. Each of the pieces of data were normalized to fit a scale between one and five (one indicating the lowest exposure or vulnerability, five indicating the highest exposure or vulnerability) then weighted depending on the scoring category the data resided in. A normalization formula was used in Microsoft Excel to normalize the raw data to fit the scoring system. The full breakdown of scores can be seen in Table 2.

     After all data was normalized, scores for each category were added together and assigned to their specific park or recreation center. For a park or recreation center, scores could range from 1 (lowest need) to 300 (highest need). Each scoring category was weighted differently depending on what DPR staff identified as most critical for improving park access, use, and life expectancy. To assign the level of scores for service, community need, community perspective and maintenance funding to specific parks and recreation centers, table joins and spatial joins were conducted using the online version of ArcGIS. The table join function combined data between two datasets that included one or more of the exact pieces of data, whereas a spatial join could combine data based on location. Therefore, the park or recreation center is assigned an individual park or recreation center level score and scores within larger geographic contexts such as census tract and maintenance district levels. For parks that fall across multiple census tracts, the parks were included in the census tract scores where their centroid was located. Life expectancy was calculated using the U.S. Small-area Life Expectancy Estimates Project (USALEEP) data, which looked at individual census tracts.


 

 

 

 

 

Table 2. Park and Rec Need Scores


Park Need Score

 Total Score

 300 pts (1 indicating lowest need, 300 indicating greatest need)

Breakdown of Scores

Park Conditions and Funding Score

 

 100 pts

 50 pts: Park conditions

 50 pts: Funding

Level of Service Score

 100 pts

 50 pts: Access level of service

 50 pts: Acreage level of service

Community Need Score

 50 pts

 5 pts: Concentration of vulnerable age groups

 5 pts: Racial and ethnic diversity

 5 pts: Income and educational disparities

 5 pts: Vulnerable housing conditions

 5 pts: Level of public safety

 5 pts: Transportation environments

 5 pts: Environmental health

 5 pts: Street connectivity

 5 pts: Food environment

 5 pts: Life expectancy

 

Community Perspectives Score

 25

 5 pts: Park and recreation needs

 5 pts: Reasons discouraging use of parks

 5 pts: Quality of parks and recreation activities and events

 5 pts: Physical condition of parks and recreation

 5 pts: Greatest park concerns

 

Maintenance Funding Score

 25

 5 pts: Maintenance costs

 

* All scores were multiplied by 5

Recreation Center Need Score

 Total Score

 300 pts (1 indicating lowest need, 300 indicating greatest need)

Breakdown of Scores

Rec Conditions and Funding Score

 

 100 pts

 50 pts: Rec conditions

 50 pts: Funding

Level of Service Score

 100 pts

 50 pts: Access level of service

 50 pts: Acreage level of service

Community Need Score

 50 pts

 5 pts: Concentration of vulnerable age groups

 5 pts: Racial and ethnic diversity

 5 pts: Income and educational disparities

 5 pts: Vulnerable housing conditions

 5 pts: Level of public safety

 5 pts: Transportation environments

 5 pts: Environmental health

 5 pts: Street connectivity

 5 pts: Food environment

 5 pts: Life expectancy

 

Community Perspectives Score

 25

 5 pts: Park and recreation needs

 5 pts: Reasons discouraging use of parks

 5 pts: Quality of parks and recreation activities and events

 5 pts: Physical condition of parks and recreation

 5 pts: Greatest park concerns

 

Maintenance Funding Score

 25

 5 pts: Maintenance costs

 

* All scores were multiplied by 5


Mapping the Scores

     The maps in the data tool were produced using data from these datasets which were downloaded as CSV files into Microsoft Excel,. To visualize the data on different geographic levels, layers for the Atlanta census tract boundaries, park and recreation centers, and maintenance districts were uploaded onto ArcGIS Online, the online mapping software used to analyze and visualize all data and scores in this methodology.

Atlanta Parks Map and Atlanta Recreation Center Map

     The Atlanta Parks map shows a total ‘need’ score for each of the evaluated parks across Atlanta. The map also shows the scores for all five of the scoring categories (park conditions and funding, community need, level of service, community perspectives, and maintenance funding).

Community Need Map

     The Community Need map scores our operationalized definition of community need for each Atlanta census tract. Community need was evaluated by adding the scores of 10 composite indicators that were used to measure a number of neighborhood social and environmental determinants of health. It also includes life expectancy as a measure of comparison for overall community health equity.

Level of Service Map

     The Level of Service map shows level of service scores for each of Atlanta’s census tracts. Level of service was scored by evaluating access to greenspace and greenspace acreage by census tract.

Health Map

     The Health map includes life expectancy data from the National Center for Health Statistics and data for 12 health outcomes and 4 health behaviors from the CDC 500 cities tool which is comprised of BRRFS data from 2017.

Community Perceptions Map

     This map illustrates a representative sample of Atlantans’ perspectives of their parks and recreation system by maintenance district. Atlantans’ perspectives were evaluated through a statistically valid survey disseminated to Atlanta residents in 2020 where questions regarding their use and perceptions of the park and recreation system were evaluated. Five illustrative questions from the survey were included in the community perception scores.

Maintenance Funding Map

     The Maintenance Funding map shows differences in public maintenance funding from 2015 to 2020 by maintenance district.

Developing the Tool

     The parks and recreation equity data tool was comprised of seven maps (Atlanta parks map, Atlanta recreation centers map, level of service map, community need map, community perspectives map, maintenance funding map, and health map), in which six of the maps stemmed from the six scoring categories in Table 1. The data included in the health map were not used in the scoring methodology, but it was included as a tool to compare differences in health outcomes in relation to parks and recreation locations and to track and measure long-term progress over time. The health map included 15 health outcomes and behaviors and is utilized to evaluate differences in health across Atlanta neighborhoods and to also make connections between how the indicators in each of the scoring categories might contribute to health trends and disparities across the city.

Findings & Conclusion

     This scoring and mapping methodology was designed to meet the needs of Atlanta’s Parks and Recreation Department to facilitate data collection and decision making about investing in parks and recreation centers to improve health outcomes and health equity citywide. The broad approach can be replicated in any context by utilizing a similar set of indicators and adjusting the weighting accordingly. The mapping looked at a wide variety of physical and social determinants of health by census tract and compared them to parks and recreation condition and health outcomes, including life expectancy.

     Total need scores across Atlanta ranged from a low need of 90 (Piedmont Park) to a high need of 242 (Coventry Station Park). As hypothesized, many of the higher need scores across all categories were found in historically marginalized neighborhoods, clustered mostly in the southeast and southwest of the city. However, there were several surprises as wealthier neighborhoods such as Buckhead showed a diverse range of needs and disparities throughout, and scores did not always fall into the lowest need tercile or consistently show the best health outcomes. Greenspace acreage and level of service in some of the most privileged parts of Buckhead showed a need in the middle or upper tercile compared to the rest of the city in several census tracts. Higher life expectancy largely correlated with lower need scores, however, reflecting the complex range of neighborhood factors influencing overall health, wellbeing and lifespan.

     As a result of the parks and recreation equity data tool, DPR is now able to more equitably make data-driven decisions about which parks and recreation centers to prioritize for funding and investments in their 10-year comprehensive master plan. Additionally, we have trained DPR staff on using the data tool to explicitly consider the environmental and social determinants of health and the disparities across the neighborhoods surrounding parks and recreation centers throughout the City of Atlanta, with a goal of targeting improvements in those upstream factors with specific strategies and interagency partnerships. They will use the tool to track their master plan implementation progress, to measure and evaluate access to greenspace and the ways that park and recreation actions and investment can improve citywide equity.

     We hosted data tool trainings for many nonprofit partner parks groups, grassroots organizations, the mayor’s office and several other City of Atlanta agencies. The Equity and Inclusion Office, the Director of Sustainability, the Department of City Planning, Watershed, Public Works and Transportation have all been supportive collaborators throughout the process and many of them intend to add data and utilize the data tool themselves to pinpoint the areas with the greatest need for health promoting actions through their agency programs.

     Over time, we hope that this helps the city move closer to their goal of identifying historic inequities, decreasing place-based disparities and eventually, bringing greater health equity to Atlantans, regardless of race, background, age or zip code.

Correspondence should be addressed to

Diamond Spratling

2950 Tejas Trail SW

Atlanta, GA 30331

313-585-7772

 

*  Diamond Spratling: 0000-0003-0152-1345

*  Giselle Sebag: 0000-0002-0820-3000

 

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Commissioner John Dargle and the entire Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation for supporting us and inviting us to create this data tool for their department. Special thanks to Joshua Humphries, Jordan Dowdy and the GIS office at the Department of City Planning for your ongoing patience and help in making the data in the tool as useful and approachable as possible. Acknowledgement and appreciation to Heather Devlin, Ken Rose, Janet Fulton and David Brown from the CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity (DNPAO) for lending us their invaluable time, expertise and insights, despite being focused on a once-in-a-generation pandemic. Acknowledgement and thanks to Amanda Burden and Bloomberg Associates for their ongoing support and making this tool a reality.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, D.S. and G.S.; Methodology D.S. and G.S.; Investigation D.S. and G.S.; Writing – Original Draft, D.S., Writing – Review & Editing, G.S.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License.



 

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Appendix

Figure 1

ATL Rec Center Need Scores

 

Figure 2

Community Perceptions by Maintenance District

Figure 3

Level of Service Need Score

 

Figure 4

Maintenance Funding by Maintenance District

Figure 5

Life Expectancy and Health Map by Census Tract

 

Figure 6

City of Atlanta Parks and Recreation Equity Data Tool Test Results