Urban Parks Should Be a Greater Part of the Healthcare System
Each year, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) issues its ParkScore, which ranks the park systems of the 100 most populated cities in the U.S. This year, the organization also explored the positive health outcomes of top-scoring cities, looking at more than 800 innovative programs and practices that integrate park and healthcare systems.
Their findings are collected in a new report, The Power of Parks to Promote Health, which offers innovative strategies for making parks a more formal part of community health programs. Their inclusive, equitable approaches can help ensure more communities experience the physical and mental health benefits of public green spaces.
TPL finds that in the 25 cities with the top ParkScore rankings, “people are on average 9 percent less likely to suffer from poor mental health, and 21 percent less likely to be physically inactive than those in lower- ranked cities. These patterns hold even after controlling for race/ethnicity, income, age, and population density.”
Alan Ward’s Photographic Interpretation of American Designed Landscapes
And in 26 cities, efforts are underway to deepen connections between parks and healthcare systems. In these cities, “a healthcare institution is funding, staffing, or referring patients to health programs in parks as part of efforts to improve patient and community health.”
TPL wants to see even more cities make these connections. “Park administrators and health professionals should think of parks as part of a holistic public health strategy,” said Dr. Howard Frumkin, senior vice president at Trust for Public Land (TPL), co-editor of Making Healthy Places, and one of the co-authors of the report.
Numerous studies by landscape architecture researchers and other scientists have demonstrated the health benefits of spending time in green spaces, even if it’s just 20 minutes. Dr. MaryCarol Hunter, ASLA, and William Sullivan, ASLA, and others have done much to quantify those benefits.
Studies have found that exposure to nature in cities can improve “hormone levels, heart rate, mood, the ability to concentrate, and other physiological and psychological measures,” TPL writes.
Specific benefits include: “lower blood pressure, improved birth outcomes, reduced cardiovascular risk, less anxiety and depression, better mental concentration, healthier child development, enhanced sleep quality, and more.”
Other research has demonstrated the long-term benefits of spending time in nature on “body weight, cardiovascular disease risk, and life expectancy.”
“If we had a medicine that delivered as many benefits as parks, we would all be taking it,” Frumkin said. “And they do those things without adverse side effects and at minimal cost.”
But park inequities, and therefore health inequities, are also real. TPL states that “neighborhoods where most residents identified as Black, Hispanic and Latinx, American Indian/Alaska Native, or Asian American and Pacific Islander had access to an average of 43 percent less park acreage than predominantly white neighborhoods. Similar park-space inequities existed in low-income neighborhoods across cities.”
“Over 100 million people across the country, including 28 million kids, don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of their home. In California, 42 percent of low-income parents report that their children have never participated in outdoor activities.”
The report brings together a range of scientific findings that clearly show why all communities need nearby access to high-quality parks. With inclusive parks spread more equitably throughout cities, health programs can better reach historically underserved communities.
These findings can help landscape architects, planners, policymakers, developers, and community advocates make the case for more parks and the new public health programs that can amplify their benefits:
- Close-to-home parks are associated with lower obesity rates and improved health in both young people and adults.”
- “Staffed programming, such as fitness classes, dramatically increased physical activity. Each additional supervised activity increased park use by 48 percent and moderate to vigorous physical activity time by 37 percent.”
- A 2014 study in the journal Preventive Medicine, which relied on five years of data on individuals’ body mass index (BMI) and characteristics of nearby parks in New York City, found that “greater neighborhood park access and greater park cleanliness were associated with lower BMI among adults.”
- A study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, which examined children ages 6 to 12 in Valencia, Spain, found that “park and playground access was ‘significantly associated’ with increased physical activity, especially on weekdays, and contributed to lower BMIs overall.”
- A 2022 study in the journal Health & Place explored the rates of depression and anxiety among older people during the pandemic. “It found that those with access to neighborhood parks were much less likely to report symptoms of depression or to screen positive for anxiety than those without.”
- “A 2023 study conducted in Philadelphia and published in the journal PLOS ONE found that those who lived closest to green space reported better physical health and less stress than those who lived farther. Actually visiting green spaces during the pandemic was linked to better mental and physical health and less loneliness.”
In their report, TPL also outlined the climate benefits of parks and how they can reduce the dangerous health impacts of extreme heat. Assembling the “highest-resolution heat data” available in the U.S., they found a “stark difference in temperature between neighborhoods that have parks nearby and those that do not.”
Analyzing “thermal satellite imagery for 14,000 cities and towns,” TPL researchers found that areas within a “10-minute walk of a park can be as much as 6 degrees cooler than neighborhoods outside that range.”
The report offers examples from leading park and health coalitions in cities, outlining how public agencies, non-profit community organizations, and healthcare providers came together to leverage public park space to improve health outcomes.
“In New York City, for example, a program called Shape Up NYC offers free classes in everything from yoga to Zumba to Pilates in easy-to-access locations: libraries, public-housing complexes, recreation centers, and, of course, parks. In Columbus, Ohio, doctors at a local hospital prescribe 11-week fitness programs, provided for free by the city’s parks department, to patients struggling with obesity and high blood pressure,”– TPL
A set of 14 recommendations then outline how park and healthcare systems can better integrate. Many of their recommendations can inform the planning and design work of landscape architects.
One recommendation worth highlighting — “ensure that everybody lives within a 10-minute walk (about a half mile) of a park.” TPL states that proximity is important, including “quality, activation, and safety.” And “creative place-making initiatives that incorporate local character through cultural elements, such as public art and bilingual signage,” are also key.
- “Prioritize park investment in historically underserved communities
- Develop transit connections and guided tours, like youth programs
- Bring parks to the people through pop-ups and mobile offerings
- Offer all-ability or ‘try before you buy’ fitness and wellness programs [in parks] explicitly designed for beginners.
- Encourage park visitors to try something new with low-commitment offerings such as drop-in sports (e.g., adult recess) or free or low-cost gear rentals.
- Make it easy for community groups to use parks and recreation facilities as their primary gathering venues.
- Refer, prescribe, or host patients with health programming in parks and recreation facilities.
- Sponsor the costs of wellness programs, sports leagues, and other health classes as part of any free fitness membership benefit.
- Invest in capital improvements in parks as community health investments.
- Work with parks and recreation agencies to map and identify park deficits as part of Community Health Needs Assessments.
- Continue to partner with parks and recreation agencies to reach key patient populations with health services and education.
- Partner with parks and recreation agencies to evaluate the impact of park initiatives on key patient and community health outcomes.”