This paper discusses how the structure of communities contributes to health. It is a resource for government and volunteer leaders in making the case that parks and open space are essential to the health and well-being of all Americans
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; reli eves 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. In Los Angeles, for example, more than 2.6 million people live too far (more than one-fourth mile) from the nearest park to walk there. Angelenos who live in low-income areas and in Latino, African American, and Asian American/Pacific Islander neighborhoods are less likely to be near parks, playgrounds, and exercise facilities than people who live in wealthier neighborhoods and in largely white neighborhoods.
Low-density, automobile-dependent patterns of development can discourage health-promoting incidental physical activity, such as walking or cycling to school or work or to run errands. 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.
Exposure to nature in parks, gardens, and natural areas can improve psychological and social health. Surgical patients recover faster with windows that look out on trees. Horticultural therapy has evolved as a form of mental health treatment based on the therapeutic effects of gardening. Children who suffer from attention deficit disorder (ADD) can concentrate on schoolwork better after taking part in activities in green settings. Residents in housing projects with views of trees or grass experience reduced mental fatigue and report that they are better able to cope with life’s problems.
Parks provide children with opportunities for play, and play is critical in the development of muscle strength and coordination, language, and cognitive abilities.
Parks also build healthy communities by creating stable neighborhoods and strengthening community development. Research shows that residents of neighborhoods with greenery in common spaces enjoy stronger social ties. Neighborhoods with community gardens are more stable, losing fewer residents over time.
Parks increase “social capital.” That is, when people work together in a community garden or to create a park from a vacant lot, they get to know one another, trust one another, and look out for one another. The accomplishment of creating a new park helps people to believe that they can effect change.