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Researchers suggest parks should adapt to better serve Latino trail users

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor

Lincoln Park
Click photo to enlarge
Photo Monika Stodolska
Latinos use the trails in Lincoln Park for more passive and social uses than other populations, researchers have found.


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — By now, many people know that 30 minutes of daily exercise may go a long way toward extending their life expectancy. And among those who are taking the message to heart and actually becoming more physically active, the most commonly reported exercise of choice is walking.

Increasingly, many people are logging their miles on trails and greenways that are surfacing throughout the United States in parks and other outdoor settings.

But, according to Kim Shinew and Monika Stodolska, both professors of recreation, sport and tourism at the University of Illinois, not much research has focused on the recreational use of these pathways by the nation’s minority populations.

“Without an understanding of diverse cultural preferences and expectations, trail management for health benefits may not be effective among minority populations,” they noted in an article scheduled to appear in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration. The article, “Trail Use Among Latinos: Recognizing Diverse Uses Among a Specific Population,” was co-written by U. of I. graduate student Megan Kelly Cronan and focused on observational and survey research conducted in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. It is part of a larger study, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which examines Latinos’ use of parks, sports complexes and trail systems for active recreation.

“Our findings suggest that cultural understanding on the part of trail managers and designers is essential to best serve a growing Latino population as well as successfully encourage physical activity,” the authors wrote.

“Our survey and observational data together suggest the need for organizing family-oriented events along the trail as well as introducing trail design features that will encourage walking by recognizing the preferences of Latino visitors.”

In Chicago – a city with a Hispanic population of more than 1 million – in some areas those visitors could number 40 or 50 percent of park users, said Stodolska.

One of the most significant findings noted by the U. of I. researchers is that urban-dwelling Latinos often use trail areas in ways that sharply contrast with traditional use patterns.

Lincoln Park
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Monika Stodolska
Whites, African Americans and Asians use the trails in Lincoln Park for activities such as skating and bicycling.

“What’s interesting in the trail literature is that it’s assumed that the trails are going to be used for jogging or bicycling and other more active types of leisure use,” Stodolska said. “What we found is this is not really how a lot of minorities are using this area. It’s more of a passive and social type of use.”

Unlike many non-Hispanic whites, who may visit the parks more frequently, for shorter periods of time more than once a week for a specific purpose – to walk, jog, run or bike, alone or with a friend or family member – the study’s 301 Latino respondents indicated that they go to the park mainly on weekends (particularly Sundays), in larger groups, and often remain there for up to five hours at a time.

In fact, the researchers noted, the open – often shaded – areas just off the trails appear to play an important role in recreating culture, functioning as “a cultural stage on which Latinos were able to re-enact the plazas and markets of their homelands.” The most popular activities along the trail, as reported by survey respondents, were sitting, relaxing, resting, talking and socializing. The researchers also observed that people brought food and beverages or purchased snacks and drinks from unsanctioned vendors.

Despite their primary motivations for visiting the parks and trails, respondents did list walking as the type of physical activity they engaged in most frequently in that setting.

“It may not be like what I would do – go to a trail, start my stop watch and walk for 45 minutes, stop it and get in my car and leave,” Shinew said. Nonetheless, “they were getting exercise by running after kids and going to their cars and things.”

If park managers and designers better understood the needs and motivations of an increasingly more diverse user base, it would go a long way toward developing recreational spaces where all users not only felt comfortable, safe and welcome but also had built-in opportunities to be more physically active, Stodolska said.

“Making the parking space a little farther from the picnic area, just to make sure people have a little bit longer distance to walk” would be one way to do that, she said. Also important is “getting the message across to this population that physical activity is actually very beneficial to their health.”

Stodolska and Shinew
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
   Kim Shinew, right, and Monika Stodolska, both professors of recreation, sport and tourism, have focused on the recreational use of pathways by the nation’s minority populations. They found that Latino use is more passive than other users.

A related study by Shinew and Stodolska, with graduate student Maya Skowron, which focused on determinants of leisure-time physical activity among women revealed that this population does have positive attitudes regarding the importance of physical activity. However, they indicated a number of constraints that prevent them from exercising, the foremost being child-care responsibilities.

In that study, which will be published in a forthcoming edition of the journal Leisure Sciences, the researchers suggested “promoting leisure-time physical activity that might take place at home or in its vicinity, with little outlay of resources, and that can be undertaken in between household obligations.”

Language may be another barrier to communicating the value of physical activity to both genders of Hispanics, Shinew said, suggesting that the installation of bilingual signs in parks might help. In addition, she advocated providing better informational sources, such as signage and brochures within the park setting. And media campaigns targeted at the community could augment that effort.

“An informational source could be provided, for example, stating, ‘Walking briskly 10 minutes burns 100 calories’ or ‘The recommended amount is to exercise 30 minutes every day, but this doesn’t have to be at one particular time.’ ”
And while Shinew and Stodolska want to arm park and trail users with knowledge about the long-term benefits of physical activity, they point out that the ways in which many Latinos currently use these recreational areas may be valuable in other ways.

“It’s important to recognize that many people within this particular population work at physically demanding jobs,” Shinew said. “We oftentimes – given the obesity epidemic and particularly as it relates to minority populations – say, ‘Get moving, Get moving, Get moving!’

“But there is the benefit of going to the park and sitting and socializing. Even though I’m a strong advocate for the get-moving message, the World Health Organization defines health more holistically. I think we need to be careful that we don’t send a single-minded message to people who may have very demanding physical jobs.”

The refined message, she said, would be: “Use parks for physical activity, but also use parks for health. And that might be social health and emotional health.”

Beyond that, the researchers maintain there is an even greater take-away lesson from the research results.
“We have to recognize this is a multicultural society we live in,” Shinew said. “We are not this Anglo society that we have oftentimes thought of when we design programs and facilities. We have to really open up our minds to different, diverse user groups.

“This study happens to focus on Latinos, but there are (among park users) other groups, from American Indians to the Muslim population. And we need to be cognizant of different people’s culture and religious restrictions or whatever it might be that will influence how they use a site.”