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Healthy parks, healthy people The health benefits of contact with nature in a park context. A...

Key Message

The main benefits to the health and wellbeing for individuals and communities that arise from contact with nature.include: 1. biological/mental wellbeing; 2. social/community wellbeing; 3. economic wellbeing; 4. environmental wellbeing; 5. life satisfaction; 6. spiritual/existential wellbeing; and 7. ‘other characteristics valued by humans’.

Source

Deakin University, School of Health and Social Development. (2008). Healthy parks, healthy people The health benefits of contact with nature in a park context. A review of relevant literature. Melbourne, Australia: Author.

Purpose

The idea that isolation from the natural world may be harmful to health is not limited to scientists and researchers but is also seen in the choices of everyday people. For example, it is estimated that 42% of the American public uses some form of complementary medicine (Clark, 2000) and worldwide the use of complementary medicine has doubled in recent decades (New Scientist, 2001). A recent Australian review of the literature on the use of complementary and alternative medicines, with a particular focus on their use in treating asthma, found that ‘20-30% of adults and 50-60% of children with asthma may be using CAM at any one time’ (Slader et al. 2006 p. 386).

The rise in popularity of complementary medicines may not only be due to disenchantment with modern techniques, but also the expression of a desire to take a more natural approach to health (Clark, 2000). In fact, many patients cite ‘naturalness’ as the appeal of complementary medicine, yet others are drawn by spiritualism or the emphasis on holism (New Scientist, 2001). Both of these qualities are often assigned to nature. Yet, there is still a lack of understanding in the general populace, governments and institutions about the significance of the human connectedness with nature, and its relevance to current social problems, particularly in terms of health. The following is a review of the potential and actual health benefits of contact with nature, including but not restricted to nature in a park context. Contact with nature is defined as viewing natural scenes, being in natural environments, or observing, encountering or otherwise interacting with plants and animals. In many disciplines, there have been concerted attempts to understand the human relationship with nature and how humans might benefit from nature in terms of health and wellbeing. Although still in the relatively early stages, research indicates that contrary to popular thinking, humans may be dependent on nature for psychological, emotional, and spiritual needs that are difficult to satisfy by other means.

Findings so far demonstrate that access to nature plays a vital role in human health, wellbeing, and development that has not been fully recognised. This review is an examination of a broad cross-section of published literature that relates to the potential and actual health benefits of contact with nature, particularly but not only, in a park context. City living involves an extraordinary disengagement of humans from the natural environment that is likely to be detrimental to health and wellbeing. Parks may be one of the only means of accessing nature for the majority of people in urban areas, yet most people are unaware of their full range of potential health benefits. Humans have forgotten how much the natural world means to them. Yet, signals abound that the loss of life’s diversity endangers not just the body but also the spirit. It has been reported that modern people are experiencing a spiritual famine and that alcohol, food, and drug addictions are futile attempts to fill the spiritual emptiness that has arisen from loss of contact with nature. In terms of health, parks and other natural environments have been viewed almost exclusively as venues for leisure and sport. Yet recent research shows that ‘green nature’, such as parks, can reduce crime, foster psychological wellbeing, reduce stress, boost immunity, enhance productivity, and promote healing. In fact, the positive effects on human health, particularly in urban environments, cannot be over-stated.

As a result, urban planning should ensure that the communities have adequate access to nature. Evidence in the literature shows that among other benefits viewing nature is positive for health in terms of recovering from stress, improving concentration and productivity, and improving psychological state, particularly of people in confined circumstances such as prisons and hospitals. Furthermore, wilderness and related studies clearly demonstrate that being in a natural environment affects people positively, particularly in terms of mental health. There are also multiple benefits from brief encounters with nature, or experiencing nature on a smaller scale, such as in urban parks. Surveys have shown that nature is important to people, and the numbers of people seeking nature-based recreation are increasing.

Evidence

Principal health outcomes Below is a summary of the main benefits to the health and wellbeing for individuals and communities that arise from contact with nature. The benefits are summarized into the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s seven dimensions of holistic health (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 1998), including: 1. biological/mental wellbeing; 2. social/community wellbeing; 3. economic wellbeing; 4. environmental wellbeing; 5. life satisfaction; 6. spiritual/existential wellbeing; and 7. ‘other characteristics valued by humans’. As the components of health are interrelated, there is some overlap. 1. Biological and mental wellbeing

  • Contact with nature provides a sense of wellbeing and positively influences immunity and cardiovascular function;
  • Contact with nature reduces the magnitude of the physiological response to stress and enhances the ability to cope with, and recover from, stressful episodes;
  • Some positive physiological effects of viewing nature include reduction of heart rate, muscle tension, blood pressure, and skin conductance;
  • Viewing or touching a pet or animals reduces stress, decreases blood pressure and heart rate;
  • Views of nature improve psychological health, particularly emotional and cognitive;
  • Natural surroundings assist cognitive functioning in children (including reducing the symptoms of attention deficit disorder);
  • Views of nature improve performance in attention demanding tasks and can restore concentration/attention;
  • Nature and parks promote healing in patients suffering from severe trauma, cancer, depression, anxiety, and other life-altering afflictions;
  • Pet ownership can reduce the risk factors for heart disease (systolic blood pressure, plasma cholesterol, plasma triglycerides) independently of lifestyle and other health factors;
  • Views of nature reduce self-reports of illnesses, such as headaches and digestive disorders, in people who live or work in confined, indoor spaces (such as offices and prisons); Parks, nature and health Literature review
  • Nurturing living organisms may have distinct beneficial physiological (and emotional) responses that improve overall health and wellbeing;
  • Contact with nature improves self-awareness, self-esteem, self-concept, and positively affects mood state, which have positive flow-on effects to physiological state (such as boosting immunity);
  • Contact with nature is effective in alleviating the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and psychosomatic illness (including irritability, restlessness, insomnia, tension, headaches, and indigestion);
  • Pet ownership and interacting with plants (i.e. via gardening) encourages individuals to undertake physical exercise;
  • Pet-ownership can improve mental health by providing companionship (regardless of overall health, socio-economic status, or physical exercise). 2. Social and community wellbeing
  • Interacting with nature or participating in nature-based activities in one’s local neighbourhood (such as Friends of Parks groups) can promote a sense of community, foster a sense of belonging or sense of place, and enhance social ties/relationships;
  • Pet ownership can foster social relationships through contact with other pet owners (or park users), thereby expanding social networks;
  • Contact with nature reduces the stresses associated with urban living (such as crowding, noise, pollution, etc).
  • Natural environments foster social capital within neighbourhoods by providing settings for groups to meet formally and informally for recreational or leisure pursuits;
  • Where community members are engaged in civic environmentalism (for example, Friends of Parks and other community volunteer groups) there are significant spin-offs for social connectedness and social capital;
  • Residents who have nature nearby, or who regularly pursue nature related activities have greater neighbourhood satisfaction, and have better overall health than residents who do not;
  • Nature in high density urban living can reduce vandalism, violence, crime rates, ease racial tension or prejudices, and result in neighbourhood and personal transformation;
  • Contact with nature can foster a sense of identity and ownership, and provide a sense of integration rather than isolation for newly arrived migrants;
  • Horticultural therapy and animal-assisted therapy programs in prisons (via contact with plants or animals) can reduce aggression and vandalism in inmates, provide job training, and enhance self-esteem. 3. Economic wellbeing
  • Views of nature from detention centres and prisons have the potential to reduce the incidence of illness (particularly stress related illness) in inmates, reducing health care costs in prisons;
  • Views of nature from hospitals and other care facilities (such as nursing homes) have the potential to reduce recovery time (number of days spent in hospital), reduce the quantities of medication required to treat patients, and reduce incidences of post-operative surgery in patients; Parks, nature and health Literature review
  • Contact with nature improves job satisfaction, overall health, and reduces job stress in the workforce as well as reducing number of sick days and employee absences;
  • Parks and natural features attract businesses;
  • Trees in urban streets attract consumers and tourists to business districts, and are seen to increase appeal;
  • Tourism is the third largest industry worldwide, with growth occurring particularly in wilderness or nature-based tourism;
  • Parks and nature tourism generate employment in regional areas;
  • Significant natural features, including parks and gardens, raise real estate values;
  • Contact with nature can potentially reduce the burden of disease on the current health care system. For example, for pet ownership alone preliminary estimates of savings to the health care system are between AUD$790 million to AUD$1.5 billion annually (Headey and Anderson, 1995);
  • Views of nature from detention centres and prisons have the potential to reduce the incidence of illness (particularly stress related illness) in inmates, also reducing health care costs in prisons;
  • Interaction with nature encourages a holistic/ecological approach to health, giving people a sense of control over their own health and wellbeing which may lead to less reliance on health care services. 4. Environmental wellbeing
  • Greater financial and in kind support for parks will assist conservation and improvement of the natural (indigenous) values of parks;
  • Increased participation in ‘Friends of Parks’ and other volunteer groups may improve natural values/capital within parks
  • Improved understanding of the need for natural areas may lead to green corridors and extended conservation areas
  • Greater awareness of the human health and wellbeing benefits of nature may improve conservation of additional natural spaces (such as those set aside for industry, for example). 5. Life satisfaction
  • Contact with nature reduces the incidence of negative feelings such as anger, fear, anxiety, and frustration, and induces peace of mind;
  • Contact with nature, or having nature nearby, improves quality of life, work satisfaction, and the coping ability of residents in urban areas;
  • Natural environments foster a state of reflection, enabling one to gain perspective on life, and create an awareness of one’s surroundings;
  • Knowing that nature is nearby (particularly animals) improves quality of life and neighbourhood satisfaction of residents;
  • Contact with wilderness can develop leadership abilities, which translate positively into other areas of life; 70 Parks, nature and health Literature review 6. Spiritual / existential wellbeing
  • Nature provides spiritual inspiration, enabling people to gain a different or deeper perspective on life, for example by the realisation that they are part of something larger and universal;
  • Contact with nature can inspire feelings of peace, oneness, connectedness, and strength;
  • Nature is important to all people/cultures, in ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’ nations, for providing spiritual inspiration;
  • Contemplation of nature can inspire a sense of freedom, reverence, encourage humility, prompt introspection and reflection on personal values, and lead to spiritual growth or enlightenment;
  • Spirituality arising from contact with nature can reduce psychosis, substance abuse, and heal those suffering from violence and/or injury. 7. Other characteristics valued by humans
  • Parks and nature are an affordable, non-elitist, highly accessible means of improving community health that may help people reach their full potential;
  • Parks are a public resource yet to be fully utilised for individual and community health and wellbeing. Parks and other natural environments are a fundamental health resource, particularly in terms of disease prevention. The initial evidence documenting the positive effects of nature on blood pressure, cholesterol, outlook on life and stress-reduction is sufficient to warrant its incorporation into strategies for the Australian National Health Priority Areas of ‘mental health’ and ‘cardiovascular disease’. These two disease categories place a considerable health and economic burden on Australians, and worldwide will be the two biggest contributors to disease by the year 2020. 

Additional Information

EXSUM | © Deakin University and Parks Victoria 2008

Benefit Statements / Outcomes

Leadership Provided By:

  • Leisure Information Network (LIN)
  • Alberta Recreation and Parks Association

On Behalf Of:

  • Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRAA)

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