A new study by UCLA Luskin researchers recommends more parks in L.A. County for senior citizens. Flickr/Waltarrrr

Not a Walk in the Park

In new study, UCLA Luskin Urban Planning and Social Welfare scholars recommend park planning with consideration for the needs of senior citizens of L.A. County

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris

Lené Levy-Storms

Madeline Brozen

By Stan Paul

A walk in the park.

The phrase is synonymous with “easy,” or “no problem.” But a simple walk in the park presents a number of significant challenges for senior citizens in Los Angeles, according to a new study published by researchers at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Despite research confirming the mental and physical benefits of parks, especially for the older population in the U.S., there remain barriers keeping the generation dubbed the “silver tsunami” from enjoying the benefits of public outdoor recreational and green spaces.

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, professor of Urban Planning at UCLA Luskin, and colleagues address these issues in a new report on seniors and parks published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association.

“The great majority of low-income seniors reside in the inner-city area of Los Angeles that extends southeast and southwest of downtown,” said the study’s authors, who add that council districts in this area have the least park acreage per capita. “The inner city concentrates the highest numbers of senior-affordable housing, but many of the census tracts where these housing units are located do not have a park within a half-mile.”

The study includes a thorough review and summary of the literature on seniors and parks. In addition, Loukaitou-Sideris and the researchers conducted focus groups with ethnically diverse seniors who were members of an inner-city Los Angeles Senior Services Center. Group participants were asked a number of questions, including what open spaces are near their neighborhoods, what their preferences would be, what changes they would make and what features they would enjoy.

Responses from the focus groups indicated that a “senior friendly” park should have the following characteristics: a safe and secure environment, good accessibility, age-friendly design and programming, opportunities for low-impact physical activities, an environment supporting social interaction and attractive natural attributes.

The study, sponsored in part by grants from the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation and the Archstone Foundation, also includes suggestions for planners and park designers. Because the researchers found that inner-city seniors are not content with their neighborhood parks, they offered four major suggestions for improvement:

  • Develop park programming responsive to diverse seniors
  • Create opportunities for intergenerational use of parks
  • Address safety and security concerns along routes to the park as well as within the park
  • Offer atypical activities and facilities that provide seniors with contact with nature and opportunities for physical activity

While there is ample research on the benefits of parks for seniors, little information exists on what neighborhood or park variables attract or deter seniors from using parks, according to the researchers. In addition, there are very few studies on how planners and designers can develop senior-friendly parks, and scant information on how these factors may vary depending on gender, race and ethnicity.

Co-authors of the study, “Parks for an Aging Population: Needs and Preferences of Low-Income Seniors in Los Angeles,” are Lené Levy-Storms, professor of Social Welfare at Luskin; Lynn Chen SW Ph.D. ’13, currently assistant professor in the Department of Social Work at Fudan University in China; and Madeline Brozen, associate director for external relations for the UCLA Lewis Center and the Institute of Transportation Studies.

Loukaitou-Sideris said that future studies would focus on values and preferences of seniors from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

While gerontologists often tout the benefits of parks that cater to all ages, focus group participants clearly expressed a preference for some “seniors-only” parks.

Loukaitou-Sideris said that there have been recent local efforts to address this need.

“It is very encouraging that Los Angeles city and L.A. County have very recently partnered with AARP to make the Southern California region age-friendly,” Loukaitou-Sideris said. “The Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust is also creating the first park for seniors at the Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. These are very promising signs!”