Research Summary

Cultivating social capital in diverse, low-income neighborhoods: The value of parks for parents with young children

High-quality parks and safe, walkable, built environments can enhance neighborhood social capital in low-income communities of color

Landscape and Urban Planning

The term “social capital” refers to a positive outcome of human interaction.  Different features of a neighborhood environment can contribute to social capital in that neighborhood. This study investigated relationships between social capital, parks, and other aspects of the built environment in low-income communities of color in the United States. It focused specifically on parents of young children (age 5-10) in those communities.

Researchers collected and analyzed data from web-based surveys completed by 1,611 parents living in the targeted communities (low-income, people of color). Items on the survey related to neighborhood social capital, frequency of park visitation, satisfaction with prior park visits, and perceptions of the built environment. Survey items relating to social capital considered social cohesion, social support, and informal social control. Survey items assessing perceptions of the built environment related to walkability, traffic issues, safety from crime, and the presence of a park within a ten-minute walk from the respondents’ home.

Respondents reported neighborhood social capital as being generally moderate. Frequency of park use was moderately high. Respondents reported moderate satisfaction with park features and experiences. Only 19% were extremely satisfied with their most recent park visit. Respondents reported somewhat low perceptions of both neighborhood walkability and perceived safety as related to crime and traffic issues. While proximity and crime safety issues were related to less frequent park visits, many respondents reported visiting neighborhood parks on a regular basis. Surprisingly, though, park use was not strongly associated with social capital. Of all the factors considered, park satisfaction had the strongest connection with social capital. Parks most likely to be associated with higher social capital had desirable amenities – such as playgrounds, friendly park staff, and open space – and were well maintained.

This research contributes to the literature by focusing on a historically understudied population: low-income parents with young children in communities of color. Findings show that high-quality parks and safe, walkable, built environments can enhance neighborhood social capital in this population. This and other studies highlight, not only the importance of parks for promoting social capital, but also the way in which they “may confer particularly important social benefits in low-income, ethnoracially diverse neighborhoods.”