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The Health Benefits of Parks: How Parks Help Keep Americans and Their Communities Fit and Healthy

Key Message

Exposure to nature in parks, gardens, and natural area can improve individual and social health. 

Source

Gies, E. (2006). The Health Benefits of Parks: How Parks Help Keep Americans and Their Communities Fit and Healthy. San Francisco, California: The Trust for Public Land.

Purpose

Several years ago The Trust for Public Land launched its Parks for People initiative to put a park within easy reach of every family—particularly in cities and metropolitan areas, where 85 percent of Americans live. That work involves helping communities plan for parks and open space conservation, often through the use of an award-winning Geographic Information System (GIS) technology that TPL calls “greenprinting.”

This white paper on the health benefits of parks is the second in a planned series that began with the 2003 publication of an overview report, The Benefits of Parks: Why America Needs More Parks and Open Space

Evidence

Parks Support Physical Activity for Health - Physical Activity Improves Health:

A landmark 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; reduced body weight and favorable redistribution of body fat; improved physical functioning if they suffer 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.”

Access to Parks Increases Frequency of Exercise:
Fortunately, strong evidence shows that when people have access to parks, they are more likely to exercise, which can reduce obesity and its associated problems and costs. 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 the frequency of physical activity. The same studies showed that easy access to a place to exercise results in a 5.1 percent median increase in aerobic capacity, along with weight loss, a reduction in body fat, improvements in flexibility, and an increase in perceived energy.

A national study by the RAND Corporation looked at the correlation between physical activity in adolescent girls and proximity to parks and schools. Researchers found that girls who live close to parks participate in more physical activity than those who live farther away. Another RAND Corporation study found that Los Angeles residents who live near parks visit them and exercise more often than people who live greater distances from green spaces.

Community Gardens for Health:
Inner-city neighborhoods often are at a disadvantage when it comes to finding healthful, nutritious food. Along with lack of exercise, poor diet can be a contributing factor to obesity and related health problems among people who live in these neighborhoods. Community gardens provide both stress-reducing exercise and healthy, inexpensive or free produce. In 1999, 15 community gardens in New York City grew 11,000 pounds of fresh produce, of which they donated 50 percent to local soup kitchens and food pantries. The same year a single garden in the South Bronx grew 200 pounds of tomatoes and 75 pounds of peppers. At many gardens throughout the city, gardeners give away their produce to neighbors and passersby. Gardening builds strength, endurance, and flexibility. For example, raking or carrying leaves builds endurance and strength, while pruning cultivates flexibility. Studies show that gardeners eat vegetables more frequently than nongardeners. And gardening helps people relax, unwind, and connect with others. It also reduces blood pressure and relieves muscle tension. Moreover, gardening is a form of physical activity that people can do at any age.

Dr. Ross Brownson of Saint Louis University led a study about how environmental and policy issues affect physical activity. He concluded, “[T]his study suggests that changing communities by making them safer and offering people access to community parks, public recreation facilities, and walking and biking trails may help reduce the prevalence of overweight by promoting physical activity and healthy lifestyles.

Exposure to Nature and Greenery Makes People Healthier:
A growing body of research shows that mere contact with the natural world improves physical and psychological health. One important study reviewed the recovery of surgical patients in a Pennsylvania hospital. The rooms of some patients offered views of 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 pain killers, 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.

Parks Provide Therapy for Attention Deficit Disorder:
About 2 million U.S. children suffer from attention deficit disorder (ADD), a condition that negatively impacts academic performance, peer relationships, and family harmony. In addition, children with ADD are at greater risk than their peers for low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. Current treatments of medication and behavioral therapy have serious side effects or limited efficacy. Researchers have recently discovered that children with ADD can concentrate on schoolwork and similar tasks better than usual after taking part in activities in green settings, such as walking through or playing in a park. And the greener a child’s play area, the less severe the symptoms

Exposure to Nature Promotes Coping and Health:
A 2001 study examined how exposure to nature affected residents of Chicago housing projects and their ability to address major life challenges. These include crowding, noise, danger, and poverty; the demands of single parenting or other caretaker responsibilities; unemployment; paying the bills; getting enough food each month; running out of medicine; dealing with violence, including fear of bullets coming through the windows or children getting shot while playing; and parenting problems in this environment, such as keeping a son out of a gang or a daughter from getting pregnant. These stressors lead to chronic mental fatigue and can become overwhelming.

Researchers found that residents with even limited views of trees or grass from their apartments reported less mental fatigue, less procrastination in dealing with life issues, and feeling that their problems were less severe, more solvable, and of shorter duration than residents with no views of nature. Even small amounts of nature, such as a few trees and a bit of grass, were shown to have an impact.

Human Development

Parks Support Play and Brain Development:
For small children, playing is learning. Play has proven to be a critical element in a child’s future success. Play helps kids develop muscle strength and coordination, language, cognitive thinking, and reasoning abilities. “Research on the brain demonstrates that play is a scaffold for development, a vehicle for increasing neural structures, and a means by which all children practice skills they will need in later life,” according to the Association for Childhood Education International. Play also teaches children how to interact and cooperate with others, laying foundations for success in school and the working world. Exercise has been shown to increase the brain’s capacity for learning. In 1999 researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute found that running boosts the growth of new nerve cells and improves learning and memory in adult mice. The new nerve cells were concentrated in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which plays a central role in memory formation, including spatial learning—locating objects in the environment and the ability to consciously recall facts, episodes, and unique events.

Economic
Parks Support Physical Activity for Health - Physical Activity Improves Health ... and economic benefits stating:

Costs of Obesity:
Many expenses result from caring for people with these conditions. They include preventative, diagnostic, and treatment health care; pharmaceuticals; rehabilitation; ambulance transportation; hospital and home care charges; and lost wages due to illness, disability, and early death. Expenses resulting from conditions related to obesity and overweight totaled $117 billion in 2000. Another study found that approximately 300,000 premature deaths per year in the United States were attributable to obesity and overweight. By the end of the decade, the number of people who die prematurely from obesity will be greater than the number who die from smoking, according to the American Journal of Health Promotion as reported in HealthDay News.

Obesity May Affect Life Expectancy:
Researchers publishing in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2005 asserted that average life expectancy in the United States will soon begin to decline as a result of the large number of people who are obese and overweight, reversing gains made in human life expectancy over the past 1,000 years and particularly in the last 150 years. The researchers found that obesity currently reduces U.S. life expectancy by one-third to three-fourths of a year. But they predict that in the coming decades life expectancy could be curtailed by two to five years.  Critics of the study contend that it is based on limited data and flawed methodology, is “excessively gloomy,” and even suffers from a conflict of interest.

The researchers themselves admit that life expectancy gains could be preserved with advances in public health policy or medical treatment.

Parks Promote the Social Health of Communities:
Among the most important benefits of city parks—though perhaps the hardest to quantify—is their role in the social health of communities. City parks make inner-city neighborhoods more livable. They offer opportunities for recreation and exercise to at risk and low-income children, youth, and families who might not be able to afford them elsewhere. They also provide places in low-income neighborhoods where people can experience a sense of community. Research shows that residents of neighborhoods with greenery in common spaces are more likely to enjoy stronger social ties than those who live surrounded by barren concrete.

This study by the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago found that for urban public housing residents, levels of vegetation in common spaces predicted the formation of neighborhood social ties. “In inner-city neighborhoods where common spaces are often often barren no-man’s lands, the presence of trees and grass supports common space use and informal social contact among neighbors,” the study found. “In addition, vegetation and [neighborhood social ties] were significantly related to residents’ senses of safety and adjustment.”

These benefits often arise in the context of community gardens. A 2003 study conducted by the University of Missouri–Saint Louis for the community development organization Gateway Greening found that Saint Louis neighborhoods with community gardens were more stable than other neighborhoods. In a city that lost nearly 50,000 residents between 1990 and 2000, neighborhoods with gardens did relatively better, losing 6 percent of their population over the decade compared with 13 percent for the city as a whole. Advocates of community gardens say they increase residents’ sense of community ownership and stewardship, provide a focus for neighborhood activities, expose innercity youth to nature, connect people from diverse cultures, reduce crime by cleaning up vacant lots, and build community leaders.

Getting the Community Involved:
Research supports the widely held belief that community involvement in neighborhood parks is correlated with an increase in “social capital.” That is, when people work together toward shared goals, such as working in a community garden or creating a park from a vacant lot, they get to know one another, trust one another, look out for one another, and feel invested in their neighborhood. These benefits may be abstract, but they lead to concrete community improvements such as fewer homicides and other violent crime; fewer property crimes, including graffiti; reduced juvenile delinquency; higher educational achievement; lower rates of asthma and teen pregnancy; and better response to the community’s needs by central governments because they see a united front.

A similar idea to social capital is “collective efficacy”—when neighbors feel part of a community, trust one another, and are willing to intervene for the common good when trouble arises.

The Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods conducted a $50 million study on the causes of crime, substance abuse, and violence, finding that “in neighborhoods where collective efficacy was strong, rates of violence were low, regardless of sociodemographic composition and the amount of disorder observed. Collective efficacy also appears to deter disorder: Where it was strong, observed levels of physical and social disorder were low.

Environment
Parks, playgrounds, greenways, trails, and community open spaces help keep Americans and their communities fit and healthy.

All people need physical activity to maintain fitness and health. Physical activity increases strength, flexibility, and endurance; relieves symptoms of depression and anxiety; improves mood; and enhances psychological well-being.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 25 percent of American adults engage in recommended levels of physical activity, and 29 percent engage in no leisure-time physical activity at all. This sedentary lifestyle is contributing to an increased incidence of obesity along with obesity-related diseases, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, congestive heart failure, and stroke. As one solution to the increased incidence of obesity, the CDC has called for more parks and playgrounds. Studies have shown that when people have access to parks, they exercise more.

Despite the importance of parks and other recreational open spaces to health, many Americans do not have adequate access to parks and open space. This is particularly true in American cities, where parkland is often inequitably distributed, putting certain populations at risk for health problems associated with inactivity.  Conversely, incorporating parks and greenways into communities can support increased exercise and healthier lifestyles. Parks, greenways, and trails make transportation corridors to shops, schools, and offices more attractive and pedestrian friendly. Greenways support dedicated exercise programs; incidental exercise; and healthy, human-powered transportation. To the extent that greenways decrease the number of cars on the road, they reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and the accidents and stress that are by-products of driving.

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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