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The Benefits of Parks: Why America Needs More City Parks and Open Space

Key Message

"People who engage in regular physical activity benefit from reduced risk of premature death; reduced risk of coronary heart disease, hypertension, colon cancer, and non-insulin-dependent diabetes; improved maintenance of muscle strength, joint structure, and joint function; weight loss and favorable redistribution of body fat.

"Physical activity also ...relieves symptoms of depression and anxiety, improves mood, and enhances psychological
well-being."

Source

Sherer, P. (2006). The Benefits of Parks: Why America Needs More City Parks and Open Space. San Francisco, California: The Trust for Public Land.

Purpose

This white paper outlines how desperate the need is for city parks-especially in inner-city neighborhoods. And it goes on to describe the social, environmental, economic, and health benefits parks bring to a city and its people. TPL hopes this paper will generate discussion about the need for parks, prompt new research on the benefits of parks to cities, and serve as a reference for government leaders and volunteers as they make the case that parks are essential to the health and well-being of all Americans. You will find more information about the need for city parks and their benefits in the Parks for People section of TPL’s Web site.

Need for Parks:
City parks and open space improve our physical and psychological health, strengthen our communities, and make our cities and neighborhoods more attractive places to live and work. Eighty percent of Americans live in metropolitan areas, and many of these areas are severely lacking in park space. Only 30 percent of Los Angeles residents live within walking distance of a nearby park. Atlanta has no public green space larger than one-third of a square mile. Low-income neighborhoods populated by minorities and recent immigrants are especially short of park space. From an equity standpoint, there is a strong need to redress this imbalance. In Los Angeles, white neighborhoods enjoy 31.8 acres of park space for every 1,000 people, compared with 1.7 acres in African-American neighborhoods and 0.6 acres in Latino neighborhoods. This inequitable distribution of park space harms the residents of these communities and creates substantial costs for the nation as a whole.

Evidence

Personal benefits of parks:
Public Health Benefits of City Parks and Open Space Physical Activity Makes People Healthier
A comprehensive 1996 report by the U.S. Surgeon General found that people who engage in regular physical activity benefit from reduced risk of premature death; reduced risk of coronary heart disease, hypertension, colon cancer, and non-insulin-dependent diabetes; improved maintenance of muscle strength, joint structure, and joint function; weight loss and favorable redistribution of body fat; improved physical functioning in persons suffering from poor health; and healthier cardiovascular, respiratory, and endocrine systems.  “Americans can substantially improve their health and quality of life by including moderate amounts of physical activity in their daily lives,” the report found. It also found that “health benefits appear to be proportional to the amount of activity; thus, every increase in activity adds some benefit.” Physical activity also produces important psychological benefits, the Surgeon General found. It relieves symptoms of depression and anxiety, improves mood, and enhances psychological
well-being.

America’s Twin Plagues: Physical Inactivity and Obesity
Despite the well-known benefits of physical activity, only 25 percent of American adults engage in the recommended levels of physical activity, and 29 percent engage in no leisuretime physical activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The problem extends to children: only 27 percent of students in grades 9 through 12 engage in moderate-to-intensive physical activity. The sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy American diet have produced an epidemic of obesity. Among U.S. adults between 20 and 74 years old, 27 percent were obese in 1999, nearly double the 15 percent obesity rate in 1980, according to the CDC. Similarly, the percentage of children and adolescents who are overweight has more than doubled since the early 1970s; about 13 percent of children and adolescents are now seriously overweight. Obese people suffer increased risk of high blood pressure,  ypertension, high blood cholesterol, non-insulin-dependent diabetes, coronary heart disease, congestive heart failure, stroke, gallstones, osteoarthritis, some types of cancer (such as endometrial, breast, prostate, and colon), complications of pregnancy, poor female reproductive health (such as menstrual irregularities, infertility, and irregular ovulation), and bladder control problems. They also suffer great risk of psychological problems such as depression, eating disorders, distorted body image, and low self-esteem.

Access to Parks Increases Frequency of Exercise
Strong evidence shows that when people have access to parks, they exercise more. In a study published by the CDC, creation of or enhanced access to places for physical activity led to a 25.6 percent increase in the percentage of people exercising on three or more days per week. A group of studies reviewed in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that “creation of or enhanced access to places for physical activity combined with informational outreach” produced a 48.4 percent increase in frequency of physical activity. The same group of studies showed that access to a place to exercise results in a 5.1 percent median increase in aerobic capacity, along with a reduction in body fat, weight loss, improvements in flexibility, and an increase in perceived energy. When people have nowhere to walk, they gain weight. Obesity is more likely in unwalkable neighborhoods, but goes down when measures of walkability go up: dense housing, well-connected streets, and mixed landuses reduce the probability that residents will be obese. Exposure to Nature and Greenery Makes People Healthier. Beyond the recreational opportunities offered by parks, a growing body of research shows that contact with the natural world improves physical and psychological health. One important study reviewed the recoveries of surgical patients in a Pennsylvania hospital. The rooms of some patients overlooked a stand of trees, while others faced a brown brick wall. A review of ten years of medical records showed that patients with tree views had shorter hospitalizations, less need for painkillers, and fewer negative comments in the nurses’ notes, compared with patients with brick-wall views. The benefits extend to psychological health. “The concept that plants have a role in mental health is well established,” according to a review of previous studies by Howard Frumkin in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. “Horticultural therapy evolved as a form of mental health treatment, based on the therapeutic effects of gardening. It is also used today in community-based programs, geriatrics programs, prisons, developmental disabilities programs, and special education.” Further, “research on recreational activities has shown that savanna-like settings are associated with self-reported feelings of‘peacefulness,’‘tranquility,’ or ‘relaxation,’” Frumkin writes.
“Viewing such settings leads to decreased fear and anger…[and] is associated with enhanced mental alertness, attention, and cognitive performance, as measured by tasks such as proofreading and by formal psychological testing.”

An extensive study published in 2001 in the Netherlands set out to determine the link between green space and health. The study overlaid two extensive databases, one with health information on more than 10,000 residents of the Netherlands, and the other a landuse database covering every 25-by-25-meter square in the nation, allowing researchers to know which people lived near city parks, agricultural land, and forests and nature areas. The study produced several key findings. First, “in a greener environment people report fewer health complaints, more often rate themselves as being in good health, and have better mental health,” the study found. Second, “when it comes to health, all types of green seem to be equally ‘effective’”; the study found the same benefit from living near city parks, agricultural areas, and forest.

A ten percent increase in nearby greenspace was found to decrease a person’s health complaints in an amount equivalent to a five year reduction in that person’s age. Important theoretical foundations were laid in this area by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, who in 1984 hypothesized the existence of biophilia, “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.” Others have extended this idea to postulate “an affinity for nature that goes beyond living things, to include streams, ocean waves, and wind.” This affinity may stem from evolutionary roots: “For the great majority of human existence, human biology has been embedded in the natural environment,” Frumkin writes. “Those who could smell the water, find the plants, follow the animals, and recognize the safe havens, must have enjoyed survival advantages.

Additional Information

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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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