by William Kornblum
From “Parks as Community Places: Boston, 1997,” a publication on the Urban Parks Institute’s annual conference.
If you know who is coming to your park, you can play a community-forming role. Public-sector decisionmakers and granting organizations that may share these goals and have resources to allocate increasingly want to see ‘hard’ data. Survey numbers can quantify a need in a proposal, and they can also quantify the effects of implemented programs in evaluations. Giving a number rather than saying “a few,” or “many,” puts you way ahead. s you design a survey of park visitors, keep in mind the following:
Your interviewers only have 10-12 minutes.
Pre-test your survey to be sure it works within this time frame. At first your interviewers may take 15 minutes, but after several days they should get down to 10-12. If not, revise your survey.
Ask your main questions every time.
Once you’ve established baseline data (typically, demographics), you can look at trends over time. Many demographic points can be filled out by the interviewer without even asking, such as gender, minority affiliation, disability. Other questions must be asked, such as age and where people live.
Each survey can contain a few questions related to a theme.
For instance, the 1995 Central Park survey focused on stewardship issues: how people felt about the park, and what types of responsibility they were willing to take for it.
Always look at gender.
In urban public places, generally you see 60% men, 40% women. If you’re looking for diversity, look above all to gender. If you start to get more women coming to the park, you’re also getting more children and more minority use. Lower-income women tend to feel less secure than they’d like, being the most common victims of crime, so they are a barometer of safety perception.
Watch your cell size.
If Central Park’s sample was less than 1000, people would have said it was too small, although smaller numbers can work for smaller parks. But 1000 seems to be a magic number. The real issue is that if you’re going to do breakouts by category (e.g., number of women entering through the north end), you don’t want the cell size to be so small that the numbers aren’t persuasive. Balance your resources of time and money with what you need to know. Generally you don’t want to work with any cell size less than 100.
Do exit rather than entrance surveys.
As they leave, people are willing to reflect on what they did, and you can ascertain both what time they came and when they left. Ask them where they went, and have them point out the locations on a pre-coded map.
Ask everyone what they did at least three times to see the full array of their activities.
When they tell you what they did, say, “What else did you do?” Be sure to probe, especially so you hear about so-called passive uses. To “I played ball,” ask “What else did you do?” and you might hear “Well, I took a walk.”
Look at local vs. regional use.
People who live near a park use it the most. They are accustomed to the park, and have a sense of which of its areas are safe, and how to handle themselves. So when they hear about a bad incident happening in a park, they tend to think of it as catastrophic rather than routine, and they keep going to the park. People who live farther away don’t feel as familiar, and vote with their feet by not coming to a park after its safety is put into question.
Consider asking “How do you find out about park activities?” (flyer, posters, media, etc.)
The responses will help you gear your promotional strategies to the appropriate audience(s).
Surveys of New York’s Central Park have each consisted of 1400-1600 “samples” (people). The park has 14 million “user days” (visits) annually.
The 1995 Central Park survey contained a sample of non-users, representative of communities bordering the less well-used North End of the park. A sizable proportion of non-users were female, of an immigrant background and less education, with responsibility for small children. These non-users had less opportunities to go to a regional park (which is how they perceive Central Park, since it’s outside their neighborhood). Safety was a big issue for them. Have non-users tell you what’s keeping them away, or what would bring them to the park.
About 35% of the people surveyed in 1995 had such deep feelings for the park that they said they were willing to volunteer for it, and gave the interviewer their name, address and phone number.
Have non-users tell you what’s keeping them away, or what would bring them to the park.