Healthy Parks Healthy People

Walk in the Park

Mardie Townsend, Claire Henderson-Wilson, Elyse Warner and Lauren Weiss, School of Health and Social Development, Deakin University, recently prepared Healthy Parks Healthy People: the State of the Evidence 2015 for Parks Victoria (Australia).  The 103 page document reviews the post-2008 scientific literature in relation to the health benefits of parks and natural spaces.  The attempt is to see what the links are between nature time and health/wellbeing as well as the connection to parks and similar outdoor environments.  The analysis builds on similar reviews done in 2002 and in 2008.

 Overall, the evidence connecting parks and health is substantial, offering strong justification for the promotion of, and investment in, parks as settings that enhance the health and wellbeing of community members across their lifespan.  – Health Parks Healthy People

The Review

The study began its review with 663 articles in four categories:

  • Physical Health (including obesity)
  • Mental Health (including emotional health/wellbeing)
  •  Social Health (including social values, social capital)
  • Spiritual Health (including place attachment)

Ultimately the review was narrowed to 309 listed references that were most relevant.

Parks and Physical Health

Clearly, parks designed for the purpose offer opportunities for physical activity and thus improved health.  The key is to get people to participate in these activities.  Some of the findings:

    • Parks and green spaces have been shown to promote physical activity and decrease stress
    • Outdoor play promotes children’s physical and cognitive development and their ability to assess risk
    • Children’s physical activity is decreasing due to greater use of technology and changes in parents’ expectations and concerns about safety
    • Physical activity patterns and benefits in childhood track through to adulthood Parks
    • Adolescents are more likely than any other population group to achieve adequate physical activity levels
    • Neighbourhood walkability and safety are key factors influencing adolescents’ physical activity
    • Schools play a key role in engaging adolescents in outdoor settings
    • Perceived lack of safety and traffic issues may inhibit park accessibility for adults
    • Cultural differences, low socio-economic status, disability and gender have all been shown to impact on park use and thus on health.
    • Adults living closer to parks are likely to have a lower body mass index than adults who live further away

– Healthy Parks Healthy People

Parks and Mental Health

The review found that parks are important for mental health. A few of the key findings:

    • Parks and green spaces can have a restorative effect and increase perceptions of wellbeing
    • Living in close proximity to safe green spaces significantly contributes to mental health status
    • Even brief exposures to nature via local parks and green spaces can produce significant personal benefit
    • Access to safe, useable parks facilitates greater life coping in adolescents
    • Exposure to parks is protective against mental illness
    • Workplace stress can be significantly attenuated by spending time in parks

– Healthy Parks Healthy People

Parks and Social Health

While the social health aspects of parks are not as well documented,  the analysts found the following key messages:

    • Parks and other natural environments can support social cohesion and social capital in urban communities which is said to be declining due to modern urban planning and lifestyles
    • Children who have opportunities to engage in outdoor play, display more pro-social behaviour, social cohesion and social responsibility
    • Children who interact with parks and green spaces have enhanced sense of empowerment; self-efficacy and empathy; social skills; confidence and make cross-cultural contacts and friendships
    • Adolescents who develop a connection to nature are more likely as adults to adopt pro-environmental behaviours
    • Participation in nature-based programs may enhance adolescents’ social health by promoting supportive relationships, coping, self-esteem, confidence and hope
    • Adults who visit parks and woodlands may have reduced feelings of social isolation and increased levels of social contacts
    • For older adults, parks and green spaces should be safe and easy to access in order to promote a neighbourhood sense of community

– Healthy Parks Healthy People

Parks and Spirituality

Spirituality, well beyond organized religion, also has its roots in nature.  Some key findings:

    • Parks provide an important opportunity for urban populations to connect with nature – a key factor in spiritual health
    • Nature connectedness underpins spiritual health, but spiritual health also underpins people’s attitudes and behaviour towards nature
    • children’s experiences of nature prompt them to articulate feelings commonly seen as expressions of spirituality
    • For children with disabilities, nature elicits spiritual growth which offers hope and healing
    • Transcendent experiences in nature are associated with increased resilience in adolescents
    • Nature-based experiences have been shown to foster spiritual health, especially for Indigenous populations and for those who have experienced physical displacement, mental illness or life threatening illnesses

– Healthy Parks Healthy People

 

The Bottom Line

Overall the researchers conclude:

“On the basis of the wide-ranging nature and strong level of evidence about the health benefits of nature presented in this review, community health and environmental policymakers and park managers have a strong foundation to make a case for additional investment in parks as a highly cost effective strategy to improve community health and well-being. Further, policymakers and managers have the opportunity to optimize the health benefits of parks by ensuring these spaces are not only designed with the population of users in mind but equally constitute settings where nature is recognized as a metaphor for healing, one’s senses are stimulated and present moment awareness is encouraged.” – Healthy Parks Healthy People

The research leaves no doubt that parks provide a lot benefits to human health and well-being.  It also suggests ways to evaluate the potential users of parks to fit the parks in a way that best serves their needs.  If you enjoy parks in your area and think they can be improved or expanded to address community health issues, the research addressed in this publication will help you make that happen in a more cost-effective way.

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