Park and recreation professionals are aware of the relationships between health and physical activity. This awareness was further heightened with the publishing of Healthy People 2010 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000). This report emphasized that the design of communities and the presence of parks, trails and other public recreational facilities affect people's abilities to reach the recommended 30 minutes a day of moderately intense physical activity. The research shows the value, role and potential of parks (i.e., primarily nature-based areas such as community parks, trails and greenways) in facilitating active living.
Unfortunately, describing the specific relationships between the natural and built environment in communities and physical activity has not been a dominant part of the leisure and recreation research literature. Leisure behavior literature published in the past 25 years has tended to focus on individual behavior, instead of the social and environmental determinants such as public parks and recreation programs that underlie this behavior. Further, Humpel, Owen and Leslie (2002) suggested that "while the measurement of physical activity behavior is now a well-established field, this is not the case for the measurement of physical activity environments (p. 189)."
An approach that examines both the micro and macro environments of behavior is called the social ecological approach (Henderson, 2000; Stokols, 1992). Public parks and recreation programs are a central part of the macro environment that exists in communities. An "activity friendly environment" is a place that makes it easy to choose to be physically active through planned exercise or routine daily activity (Active Living Research, 2005).
These places include the environment shaped by land use, the transportation system and design features that together provide opportunities for physical activity. Parks, trails and greenways are nature-based aspects of this built environment. A significant report by the Transportation Review Board (2005) focused on how the built environment (e.g., parks and recreation facilities) influences physical activity. Many linkages were found between parks and physical activity, but little causal research seemed to exist.
Sallis, Linton and Kraft (2005) described how research on physical activity and health has entered a new era, with parks and recreation having a crucial role to play. The first era (prior to 1970) dealt with physiological studies that examined the impact of physical activity on fitness. The second era (1970s-1990s) included studies that showed physical activity was viewed as a major health priority.
The third era, which occurred in a similar time period, focused on the appropriate interventions that could lead to promoting physical activity. The new or fourth era, which started early in this century, spotlights a broader range of policy and environmental factors including parks and recreation. In this era, active living is described as a way of life that integrates physical activity into daily leisure, as well as in other aspects of living. This broadened definition of active living invites new research and community collaborators in a variety of fields to work together to fully understand active living.
In a recent survey undertaken by city managers, 89 percent indicated that the primary governmental agency responsible for helping to address the obesity problem is parks and recreation (International City/County Management Association, 2005). Individuals in public health (e.g., Bedimo-Rung, Mowen & Cohen, 2005; Israel, Schulz, Parker & Becker, 1998; Sallis, Bauman & Pratt, 1998), urban and regional planning (e.g., Hoehner, Brennan, Brownson, Handy & Killingsworth, 2003; L. Jackson, 2003), and leisure (e.g., Godbey, Caldwell, Floyd & Payne, 2005; Henderson, Sharpe, Neff, Royce, Greaney & Ainsworth, 2001; Orsega-Smith, Mowen, Payne & Godbey, 2004) collectively have amassed some documentation relative to the importance and relationship of parks, trails and open spaces to physical activity, as well as how public recreation can address community needs. …