More Research Needed: Trail Access and Use for Youth from Under-Resourced Communities

by Mike Hill, ASLA

Aerial view of the 606 in Chicago
ASLA 2020 Professional Urban Design Honor Award. The 606, Chicago, Illinois. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.. / image: MVVA

The recently published paper, “Identification of Effective Programs to Improve Access to and Use of Trails among Youth from Under-Resourced Communities: A Review” is a collaboration between researchers from National Institutes of Health, US Department of Transportation, Centers for Disease Control, USDA Forest Service, and Furman University in Greenville, SC. In addition to evaluating the effectiveness of programs to increase access to trails and trails use among youth from under-resourced communities, this paper also aims to identify:

  • relationships between physical activity/trail use and features of transportation systems and/or built environment and land use destinations,
  • benefits associated with trail use, and
  • barriers to trail use.

What We Found: The paper reviewed existing literature to identify, abstract, and evaluate studies related to programs to promote trail use among youth and youth from under-resourced communities. Eight studies used longitudinal or quasi-experimental designs to evaluate physical activity and neighborhood characteristics prospectively among adolescent girls, the effects of the path or trail development on physical activity behaviors of children, youth, and adults, marketing or media campaigns, and wayfinding and incremental distance signage to promote increased trail use.

No studies were located that evaluated programs designed to promote and increase trail use among youth, including youth from under-resourced communities. Few intervention studies using trails to increase physical activity among under-resourced youth were identified in this review. More studies need to be conducted using access to trails as interventions to promote trail-use among youth.

Many barriers to trail use are practical, such as costs, crime, lack of transportation. Others are psycho-social in nature—what trusted role models are introducing trail use? Is the “culture of the trail” welcoming to people from my background? How does being outdoors connect to my cultural identity, and through what activities? These are all challenges that impact youth and youth leaders’ decisions as much as institutional discrimination and its impact on recreation planning.

The Task Force physical activity-built environment recommendation noted the need for ensuring that a transportation system (e.g., pedestrian trails, bicycle routes, or public transit) connects to the built environment and land use destinations, such as a facility housing a program (e.g., Boys Club and Girls Club of America, YMCA/YWCA, or school club). However, this review of the scientific literature did not identify effective trail use programs for youth from under-resourced communities housed in a destination or setting such as a school, YMCA/YWCA, or Boys and Girls Club.

Recent reports from the Community Preventive Services Task Force about the influence of the built environment on physical activity and on active travel to schools provide evidence of just how rapidly knowledge about physical activity and the built environment is evolving. These reports highlight the increased rigor of research designs for evaluating the effects of the built environment on physical activity behaviors. However, systematic reviews related to physical activity and the environment do not provide knowledge about how to implement effective programs that may increase the use of the built environment especially among select population groups of interest, such as youth from low income, diverse, and/or under-resourced communities.

Why It Matters: The benefits of outdoor recreation, specifically for youth audiences, are well understood by healthcare and design professionals alike. In addition to the general benefits of physical activity, outdoor activity exposes kids to the psychological and physical benefits of sunshine; promotes executive function; allows children to take and assess risks; promotes socialization; and creates an appreciation for nature (“6 reasons children need to play outside,” Harvard Health Publishing). Many researchers believe that time outdoors improves mood and increases kids’ ability to pay attention in class. There is also significant evidence that childhood obesity is a bigger problem for children of color and poor, urban children.

ASLA 2016 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Bayou Greenways: Realizing the Vision, Houston, Texas. SWA Group. / image: Jonnu Singleton – SWA Group

What’s Next: Planning, implementing, and evaluating the use of trails to increase physical activity among youth, and programs specifically designed to facilitate the use of trails for outdoor recreation, could benefit from greater attention from researchers and practitioners in the future. Efforts to directly address disparities related to trails use among youth from low income, often racially/ethnically diverse, under-resourced neighborhoods and communities are especially needed. It is believed that findings from a comprehensive study could improve physical and psychological health outcomes for the children most at risk and all other children. In most of the adult trail studies, using trails as the intervention tool provides limited insight to this specific segment of the population.

To make advances in this area, future research and practice efforts are needed to establish programs designed to help more youth enjoy nature and outdoor recreational opportunities. Future research efforts should focus on developing interventions to promote trail use rather than cross-sectional studies limiting causal inferences. This research and practical work should incorporate an evaluation of the intervention and programs’ impact on increasing trail use and assessing other outcomes of interest to expand the knowledge base in this under-studied area that can also then be replicated.

Practice-based programs may also provide data on feasibility, even if they have not been evaluated using a well-conducted experimental study design, or published in a peer-reviewed journal. Practice-based programs accompanied by evaluation data may also inform and influence better designed future experimental research.

One area of opportunity may be to encourage practitioners to treat the incidental hiking that children do in outdoor programs as a good unto itself. Practitioners focus on experiential and learning benefits of non-traditional experiences, often because that is the focus of grantmakers. They count the number of children on the nature walk or camping trip and the type of environmental learning that occurs. The sheer number of miles that children hike as part of these experiences can be tied to measurable health improvements. If practitioners, designers, and researchers work together on strategies to make this information readily available, it can increase available health data and give practitioners additional, concrete evidence of a program’s positive impacts.

A companion brief based on a review of programs and practices related to trails use among youth from under-resourced communities or neighborhoods is being developed and when completed will be available on the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR) website.

For an opportunity to learn more about this study, see American Trails’ upcoming Advancing Trails webinar series event:

Effective Programs to Improve Access to and Use of Trails for Youth from Under-Resourced Communities
Thursday, April 22, 2021
1:00 – 2:30 p.m. (Eastern) / 10:00-11:30 a.m. (Pacific)
Free. Register now!

Mike Hill, ASLA, is a landscape architect with the USDA Forest Service, where he works on scenery preservation, recreation site design, conservation education and coalition building. Mike’s work is devoted to empowering people to reconnect with and shape the places they live, play, work, and learn. Mike is also an officer for the ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN) and past ASLA Diversity Summit participant. He served as co-author on a recently published study addressing the effectiveness of programs that increase access to trails and trail use (physical activity) among youth from under-resourced communities. The above post is a brief summary and the full paper is available to read online.

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