Groundbreaking Study of Forest Park Carried on Despite COVID

Community Engagement; Faculty; Research; Social Work

Data collection board

It hasn’t been just another walk in the park.

More than three years ago, a team of faculty and students from the Brown School began examining who uses Forest Park – and why – in the first-ever in-depth study of the comings and goings in the 1,326-acre St. Louis city park, one of the nation’s largest. The Park Activity Research & Community Study (PARCS) began on June 1, 2019, with researchers beginning by mapping the park, walking every trail, and creating submaps of all the park locations. Data collection began in September of that year, aimed at a scientific, yearlong count of how many people use the park and what they do there.

“Nothing like this has been done before,” said the project’s leader, Deborah Salvo, then an assistant professor at the Brown School, as the study began. “We’re breaking new ground.”

Then, COVID-19 struck and offered even newer ground to break.

The study was suspended on March 31, 2020. But the pandemic, while delaying a large part of the study, also provided an opportunity to gauge the public’s park use during a worldwide public health crisis.

The project eventually resumed, and data collection was recently completed. After analysis a final report will be issued to the funder, Forest Park Forever, a non-profit that supports the park, and to the City of St. Louis. “It’s one of the few projects in which we have data both before and after COVID, which makes it unique in many ways,” said Rodrigo Reis, professor and co-interim Dean at the Brown School.

Salvo, now an associate professor at the University of Texas-Austin, said the advent of COVID became a key facet of the project.

“For a researcher, it’s a great natural experiment, unfortunately,” she said. “Studying parks and open spaces in this time is fascinating. We’re always trying to get people out to the park, then this big thing happens and it works.” Fearful of crowds and indoor gatherings, St. Louisans flocked to Forest Park, where social distancing was easy and refreshing. Salvo said her study is now focused on how to maintain the park’s popularity. “What can we learn and use as strategies to keep people who have discovered something about parks in these spaces on a regular basis?”

As the pandemic dragged on, in-person research was conducted on an on-again, off-again basis. But the team was able to use a new video and recording tool, Our Voice, to gather community input remotely about the barriers to and facilitators of accessibility to the park. Sixty-six “citizen-scientists” – recreational users and commuters – collected and analyzed geolocated routes for photo and audio or text data about park access, and then met to discuss.

Salvo said COVID prompted lessons in the adaptability of Our Voice protocols that can be generalized to any study situation in which in-person interactions between researchers, community members, and stakeholders is challenging or impracticable. “The increased capacity for remote participation has significant positive implications for inclusion, cost, reach, and scale-up in future Our Voice projects,” she said.

The researchers found that recreational users of the park and people who commuted through the park to and from work largely shared a common assessment of what made the park more accessible, like entrances and roadways geared to pedestrians and bicyclists rather than cars.

The team also developed an online survey, which Forest Park Forever has helped roll out widely, to understand how COVID has changed how people use and interact with the park.  The count of users allowed the team to compare what was happening before the pandemic. “It gave us a lot of really rich information,” Salvo said.

The lengthy project also provided unique opportunities for Brown School students who worked on it and an opportunity to see it through.

Áine O’Connor, MPH ’21, joined the project in 2019 as a masters research fellow who collected data and led qualitative portions of the study. After graduating, she became the project’s manager. Now that all the field observations in the park are complete, she’s spending the next few months helping to analyze the data and create reports that will include evidence-based recommendations to approve access to the park in both the greater bi-state area and in the city ZIP codes near the park.

Originally from St. Louis, O’Connor has enjoyed the opportunity to work close to home. “It’s really nice, worthwhile, and feels really good just to work on a project in my own community,” she said. “It’s been a great way to get to know the St. Louis community better and to get to know Forest Park like the back of my hand, including all the hidden corners. It’s a nice place to get away from the city.”

As a student, she found the project helpful to put into practice what she had learned in the classroom. “I learned a ton about methods and project management by just doing the project,” she said.

“One of the great things about this project is how comprehensive it’s been,” she said, referring to the hundreds of surveys, dozens of interviews, focus groups, and sub-studies on COVID.  “It’s really unusual, exciting and fun to be at the tail end of the project. It gives us a clear and robust picture of how the park really works. In such a large park, it’s a new way of measuring a space like this.”

Eugen Resendiz Bontrud, a 4th-year doctoral student in public health sciences program, also was with the project from its beginning. She’s been managing data collection and now managing the data analysis.

“It has been an amazing experience,” said Resendiz Bontrud, who worked on a similar project in Mexico City, though in a less scenic setting. “There, we collected data on the street,” she said. “Here, it was very nice to have a beautiful setting for data collection. Seeing all the ins and outs of a project, learning to use all the tools, has been very beneficial to me,” she said.  She particularly enjoyed the close relationships among the 18 students who worked on the project, some who left and then returned.  “We have been able to get great friendships,” she said. “It’s really nice having a little community of people who worked on this project.”

One of Salvo’s main research interests at the Brown School’s Prevention Research Center was how urban design and parks like Forest Park can improve public health and reduce health disparities.  To that end, researchers collected survey data on self-reported physical activity and travel patterns.

The size of the park and its regional appeal were among the big draws for Salvo. “This isn’t like your neighborhood park; it’s a major hub for the city and attracts people from a cross-section of neighborhoods from all over the area,” she said. “That’s what makes it exciting for us.”

For Resendiz Bontrud, the interpersonal approach to research in the project has been especially rewarding. “This project takes a holistic approach that I will use in future research to stay connected with people and give them a voice,” she said.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Park Activity Research & Community Study (PARCS), follow them on Instagram at parcsstl.