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Furman leads study into trail accessibility for low-income populations

Parks and trails provide communities with great opportunities for outdoor recreation and physical activity.

But they’re often inaccessible to people in low-income neighborhoods.

What’s more, research into the problem is scarce.

Enter Furman health sciences professor Julian Reed, who was tapped by the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR) to be lead author of a study into the issue.

“Physical activity is important for overall health, but there is a disparity in those communities,” he said. “This was a unique opportunity for Furman that these large federal agencies supported this project.”

NCCOR is a collaboration of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help reduce childhood obesity in America. It funded this study, whose goal is to increase physical activity and access for youth in under-resourced communities, with support from the Federal Highway Administration.

Reed, who’s been at Furman for 18 years, said he was selected by the CDC because of the research he’s done around trails, like the Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail in Greenville, and physical activity in these communities.

“I’ve published quite a bit on that, not just about the Swamp Rabbit Trail,” he said, “but other studies from different states.”

Recently published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the study, Identification of Effective Programs to Improve Access to and Use of Trails among Youth from Under-Resourced Communities: A Review, outlines the gap in research on interventions, such as trail-building in low-income communities and marketing them to promote physical activity, he said.

“We found there weren’t a lot of interventions readily available to demonstrate effectiveness. What we did find is there is a lot lacking,” Reed said. “But even (that) tells folks we need to spend time on this. We need to do more there.”

The study also identified successful programs like the Swamp Rabbit Trail that can be replicated around the country, though there weren’t many and little data on them, he said.

Even the Swamp Rabbit Trail, its early days, didn’t have a fair representation of the community’s diversity walking or biking on it.

“But as it has grown, and you’ve seen these spur trails into some of these communities, you see trail use become much more diverse,” he said. “It’s a great example of how you can build something and as it grows it starts to become much more inclusive as you learn some of the barriers.”

Those barriers can include cost, crime, lack of transportation, lack of role models using trails, and institutional discrimination.

Now, Reed said, the trail is expanding into Laurens Road, increasing access across even more census tracts.

The study will be featured in a national webinar sponsored by American Trails on April 22, he said, as well as at national conferences looking at inequities related to physical activity and recreation. It can also be used across South Carolina to further the goals of physical activity among youth, and to encourage communities to develop trails, he said.

“When you talk about physical activity, the most common is walking. But (people) don’t necessarily have access to safe, walkable communities,” he said. “We’ve got to find different ways to get children and youth from these communities out to trails.”

The April 22 webinar will be from 1 to 2:30 pm Eastern. Check the American Trails website after Jan. 20 for more details.

Last updated January 11, 2021
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Clinton Colmenares
News & Media Relations Director