Planning Magazine

How Cellphone and Fitness App Data is Helping Create Equity in Public Parks

Park planners harness novel data sources and tools to direct equitable conservation, amenities, and access.

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At Earvin “Magic” Johnson Recreation Area, youngsters can explore habitat restoration and biodiversity projects, which are among recent improvements. The park is situated in Willowbrook, an underserved area with a high level of park need, according to the 2016 Parks Needs Assessment. The PNA+ identified Willowbrook as a high priority area for regional recreation. Photo courtesy of MIG, Inc.

In Los Angeles (LA) County, it's much easier to find a beautiful, tree-filled park with attractive amenities in Beverly Hills than in East LA or South LA. Home to 10 million residents, LA County has about 1 million acres of parkland — 38 percent of the county's total land area. But there are wide disparities in where these parks are located, how easy they are to get to, and what they offer their communities.

Luckily, there is plenty of data — including some from new and innovative sources — to help ensure that LA County's park planning is equitable, today and tomorrow. The Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) recently began to use data from fitness trackers and smartphone apps, among many other data sources, to help examine and reimagine park restoration and conservation through an equity lens.

DPR's efforts align with the global "30x30" initiative, which aims to conserve 30 percent of lands and coastal waters by 2030 to address climate change and protect biodiversity. LA County's 30x30 strategy reimagines conservation through an equity lens to include both the protection of natural lands and the restoration of degraded lands (such as decommissioned oil fields and landfills), especially in lower-income communities and communities of color. Restoration needs and environmental burdens are concentrated in these neighborhoods. In fact, people of color account for 84 percent of the 1.6 million LA residents living in priority areas for restoration.

Data, mapping, and analyses

In December 2022, the Parks Needs Assessment Plus (PNA+) was adopted by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. PNA+, developed by DPR with consultants from MIG Inc., builds on a 2016 PNA. The report has already won two honors: an Award of Excellence for Resilience and Sustainability from the California Chapter of APA and an Award of Excellence in Innovation in Green Community Planning from the Los Angeles section of APA California.

The PNA+ final report presents data, maps, analyses, community input, and recommended actions in support of additional land conservation and restoration, transit to parks, and other strategies to meet local and regional recreation needs, especially in the most vulnerable communities.

The PNA+ focuses on the most vulnerable residents: those living in park-poor and tree-poor communities across the county. Vulnerable areas are identified and mapped using GIS and data from California's Healthy Places Index® (HPI). The index addresses four dimensions that make residents particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change: social barriers, transportation barriers, health vulnerability, and environmental vulnerability. The latter can include a high number of excessive heat days and limited tree canopy, or lack of "shade equity."

The PNA+ also identifies priority areas for conservation and restoration based on an analysis of where environmental benefits and burdens are concentrated. The planners used data from state and federal agencies such as the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

In addition, the PNA+ maps priority areas for regional and rural recreation based on population vulnerability, access to and availability of existing recreational facilities, and available amenities. Some communities face challenges in using these parks due to location, distribution, and other factors, including the lack of public transit service. In the most urban areas of the county, parklands account for less than five percent of lands. And while rural areas have significant acreage dedicated to parkland, they are lacking in certain amenities — such as shaded seating, play areas, and walking trails — needed for recreation and climate resiliency. This is especially true for water-based recreation facilities like swimming pools and splash pads.

Data from fitness apps

To better understand park access, use, and visitorship, DPR acquired data collected from fitness apps and mobile phones.

To learn more about the behaviors and movements of bicyclists and pedestrians (including walkers, runners, and hikers) at parks, the PNA+ analyzes free data from Strava, a fitness tracking app. Trip data from Strava users is aggregated and deidentified according to industry standards and then provided at no cost to public agencies like DPR through the Strava Metro dashboard. In lieu of conducting labor- and time-intensive studies at individual park sites, planners and other decision makers are able to use this data about local mobility patterns to support the development and management of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

To gain better insights about users outside of Strava, DPR also procured smartphone-generated data for 2019 and 2020 from Unacast, a location data company. Using location data, the PNA+ offers detailed park visitorship profiles for about 40 regional-serving parks and recreational facilities across LA County, including a wide range of park types in diverse settings that offer a variety of recreational opportunities.

Mobility data from smartphones provides unprecedented insight into broad patterns of park use and allows park planners to identify and compare systemwide trends. However, there are some limitations associated with this method, including that data can only be gathered from the phones of adults 18 and older. For sites that attract large numbers of children on field trips, when they are not accompanied by their individual guardians, visitorship totals may be understated. Additionally, in areas with poor cellular coverage, some visits may not be reflected in the data.

Virtual engagement tools

PNA+ outreach occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, when in-person contact was limited, and most meetings were virtual. In addition to smartphone data, planners employed the latest digital tools to collect, analyze, and visualize community input.

Map-based Surveys: Online surveys collected public input on regional and rural park needs using a software called Maptionnaire, which integrates survey questions with photos and interactive maps. Those interactive maps allowed respondents to pinpoint where they lived, which parks they used, which areas they thought needed more parks and recreational amenities, and more. Maptionnaire also enabled efficient collection, analysis, and visualization of map-based data, which planners downloaded in formats supported by GIS software.

Live Polling: To make online meetings more interactive and to gather instant public opinion, live polls were conducted using Mentimeter. Polls are quick and easy to build with this tool, and responses from the audience appear in real time as dynamic visualizations. Mentimeter can also be used to create live word clouds that highlight the most popular responses to poll questions.

Live Notetaking: To show participants that their ideas and comments were immediately and properly captured, an ideation and visualization tool called Mural was used as a digital whiteboard with virtual sticky notes for ideas, suggestions, and feedback. DPR received positive feedback about the tool and how its accurate notetaking reflected attentiveness and understanding.

Nothing can replace the connections and opportunities for relationship building that in-person meetings and activities provide. However, there are tools that can help make virtual meetings more engaging, collaborative, and even fun. Also, online surveys can be much more relatable and visually appealing when interactive maps, photos, and graphics are included.

While there are limitations and costs associated with the use of technology and these data sources and tools, planning agencies should make the necessary investments. Planners must become more data driven and tech savvy to better understand and meet the needs of the communities we serve. In LA County, these tools have been essential to help meet the goals of improving park equity.

Clement Lau, FAICP, is a departmental facilities planner with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.