Associations between physical activity of older adults and built environment features in and around parks
: A Belfast case study

  • Ruibing Kou

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Physical inactivity is a key risk factor for healthy ageing, and older adults are likely to be amongst the most physically inactive. There is now an increased understanding of how built environment factors facilitate physical activity of the population, including that of older adults, which has given rise to increased interest in developing age-friendly environments. There has also been increased interest in the role of parks as urban health assets to cities, with a developing evidence base for how they provide crucial settings for relaxation, recreational physical activity and act as important destinations for active travel trips. Most studies have focused on the influence of proximity and availability of parks on local population groups, with the nuanced role of different measures of accessibility being largely overlooked, particularly on more vulnerable groups such as older adults. In addition, the impacts of park quality and the neighbourhood surrounding parks on physical activity have been largely neglected.

This research seeks to address such under-researched issues to explore the impacts of built environment features both in and around parks on the physical activity behaviour of older adults. This includes both established indicators of park quality such as park amenities, facilities and aesthetic features, as well as those that evaluate the characteristics of the neighbourhood environment, such as the walkability of the neighbourhood surrounding parks.

In order to do this, this study used a mixed methods approach that included secondary analyses of two baseline studies: a cross-sectional survey of Northern Irish adults conducted in 2009/10 derived from the Northern Ireland Sport and Physical Activity Survey (SAPAS) (Chapter 4); and observational park use data in Belfast collected using the System for Observing Parks and Recreation in Communities (SOPARC) (Chapter 4). This facilitated an appreciation of the wider context for the main empirical contribution from the research, which drew on a number of original investigations.

The study used the Community Park Audit Tool (CPAT) to measure quality of parks (n=70) which intersected with the 500m radial buffers of participants’ homes and deployed a GIS analysis to determine the walkability of surrounding hinterlands and neighbourhoods. Physical activity data was drawn from the Healthy Urban Living and Ageing in Place: Physical Activity, Built Environment and Knowledge Exchange in Brazilian Cities (HULAP) research project (n=253), both objectively measured and self-reported. Prior to the investigations on the associations between physical activity behaviour of older adults and built environment features in and around the nearest parks (n=60) (Chapter 6), a spatial distribution analysis of the intersected parks (n=70) and walkability in Belfast was firstly conducted to set the environmental contexts (Chapter 5). Chapter 6 was complemented by a qualitative component – walking interviews (n=16) and sedentary interviews (n=4) (Chapter 7) – to explore built environmental facilitators and barriers of older adults’ visits to parks in proximity to their dwellings.

The combined findings of this research confirmed the positive influence of aesthetic park features and amenities, park quality and the walkability of the built environments surrounding parks and neighbourhood walkability on physical activity levels of older adults, in both recreation and utility domains. The research also pointed to a number of built environment strategies to further promote physical activity of older adults, including provide different types of parks and improve park quality, such as aesthetic features.
Date of AwardDec 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsQueen's University & China Scholarship Council
SupervisorGeraint Ellis (Supervisor) & Ruth Hunter (Supervisor)


  • Parks
  • built environment
  • physical activity
  • older adults
  • healthy ageing

Cite this