What Do People Talk About When They Talk About Parks?
By Monica Climaco
B.A. Candidate in Urban Studies, 2013
Read about the CityNature project on the OutWest student blog. Over the summer, a team of undergraduate student researchers combined spatial analysis with innovative mining of planning document text, photographs, social media, and published historical narratives to explain why nature is unevenly distributed in and across cities.
One of the projects that I have been working on during my time here at the Bill Lane Center for the American West is answering the question that makes up the title of this post: What do people talk about when they talk about parks? As an Urban Studies major, I have read my share of works both endorsing and attacking parks and natural spaces in urban areas. From local politicians, to critics and activists, to members of non-profit organizations, to researchers and professors, it seems that everybody has something to say about what is good and what is bad about parks, or how parks should be. I myself am an advocate for parks and natural spaces in cities; I don’t think the City Nature team would have allowed me to join them if I were not. However, there is an argument against parks that resonates with me: Stanton Jones and Arthur Graves reasoned that public parks (and those who design and manage them) do not really take people’s needs into consideration. Therefore, these spaces are misunderstood and misused. Jones’ and Graves’ argument spurred me to determine what people—those who actually use and visit the parks often—are saying about parks. What features do they look for in a park? What makes them come back? Conversely, what are characteristics of a park are not attractive to them? What causes them to never want to return?
To answer these questions, I decided to scour Yelp.com for reviews of parks in the City of Los Angeles, one of the areas that the City Nature team is focusing on. Not all of the parks that are listed under the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks appear on Yelp.com. However, more than 100 parks (big and small, famous and hidden gems, alike) are reviewed on the website. That number is plenty to work with for this project. Using a social networking site to gather data for research may not seem like the best choice, but it’s a cheap (read: free) and efficient alternative to conducting surveys at the hundreds of parks and natural spaces in LA. The Department of Recreation and Parks does not seem to have its own reviews, which adds to Yelp.com’s appeal. Plus, I thought that a social media platform that allowed users to write as they pleased would yield more varied and more interesting answers than a set of questions would.
That thought turned out to be true, as Yelp.com serves very diverse users who submit their evaluations in a number of forms: as song lyrics, haikus, lists, and rants, in addition to the basic review. Currently, I am still in the collection phase of the project. There are hundreds and hundreds of reviews that are going into the corpus I’m building. But already, I am getting some ideas of what people like and don’t like about the parks they visit. Here are some aspects of parks that generate low ratings or negative reviews: inadequate parking spaces, messiness (who wouldn’t be turned off by lots of garbage and dog poop laying around?), crowds, questionable or suspicious people, and insufficient lighting. And here are some aspects of parks that generate high ratings or positive reviews: great views of the city, many opportunities to experience and interact with nature (people really want to get away from the urban jungle), historical significance, an abundance of activities and amenities, accessibility, good trails, and friendly people. Something that should be noted is that what attracts some people to a park may repel others, such as size or design. These initial findings have really driven in the concept that you can’t please everyone.
After the collection phase comes coding and analyzing the reviews, qualitatively and quantitatively. I’ll be looking for key words and phrases used to describe parks and capture user experience. I’ll also be creating visual interpretations of the patterns and trends I find. This project may be time-consuming and tedious, but hopefully when I’m finished, I’ll have a body of work that will be useful to other people. If not, I’m satisfied with what I’ve learned from this project: the value of patience, how to better organize data, and that it is worthwhile and helpful to know other people’s views on a matter.
Read more at the Out West Blog for Summer Interns »