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Older adults’ preferences for open space and physical activity in and near parks

Levy-Storms L, Chen L, Loukaitou-Sideris A. Older adults' needs and preferences for open space and physical activity in and near parks: A systematic review Journal of Aging and Physical Activity. 2018; 26(4): 682-696.

Review question

      What are older adults’ needs for open space and physical activity in and near parks? What are older adults’ preferences for the design of parks that fulfill their physical activity and other needs?


      For years, health promotion experts have highlighted the role of not only the individual but also his or her interactions with the environment as influential to his or her health status.

      To this end, open space recreation and physical activity in and near parks may positively affect health and may benefit even the oldest and most frail of adults.

      Despite this, older adults remain a highly underserved group in the planning of open spaces and physical activities in and near parks.

      This systematic review provides insight into the research on open space and physical activity needs in and near parks for older adults.

How the review was done

      Study authors conducted a detailed search of eight research databases in the fields of urban planning, leisure studies, and medical/social sciences.

      Search terms were generally related to public spaces, parks, and older adults.

      Articles were eligible for inclusion if they were written in English and were published between January 1970 and December 2015.

      A total of 83 articles were retrieved from the initial search, of which 48 were included in this review.

      This review was supported by The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation in the United States. 

What the researchers found

      Review authors highlighted several research findings with the intent to help improve the planning and design of senior-friendly parks.

      First, they advised that planners should take into consideration both the normal physical declines of older adults as well as pervasive mental-health problems and disabilities when designing open spaces and parks. To this end, different park features (for example, paths, benches and toilets) should display ergonomic designs adapted to older adults.

      Second, demographic-specific research shows that older adults have diverse motivations for engaging in physical activity and park use. For this reason, park and open space planners should tailor the design and programming of these spaces to the specific needs of the surrounding neighbourhood populations.

      Third, social health should also be considered in the design of open spaces and parks. Older adults’ social health can benefit from open spaces and parks by way of reducing social isolation. Thus, key features of park design should balance between physical-health needs (for example, providing appropriate handrails, lighting, benches, etc.) and mental/emotional needs (for example, providing a safe environment with maps and route markers).

      Fourth, the most common physical activity for older adults in relation to open spaces and parks is walking both within and to them. Thus, ensuring that walking to the park is feasible and older adult-friendly may be a way to increase park visitation by older adults.

      Fifth, the literature finds that distance between residence to parks affects the rate of usage by older adults. Thus, locating parks near high concentrations of older adults may go a long way toward increasing their use and their level of physical activity.

      Finally, engaging older adults in the planning of open spaces, parks, and physical activity programs can help urban planners understand what motivates them and how they negotiate any leisure constraints. Such engagement can facilitate buy-in from older adults and thus increase their use of open spaces, parks, and physical activity programs.


      In summary, the literature on older adults’ use of parks and open spaces suggests nuances and considerations that are unique to the aging population.

      Given the geographical, demographic, and diversity in terms of health and social needs among older adults, urban planners and policymakers should seek to engage older adults in the planning and design of open spaces, parks, and physical activity programs.


Related Topics


Systematic review
A comprehensive evaluation of the available research evidence on a particular topic.

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DISCLAIMER These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (

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