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.

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