How parks and green spaces can improve your health

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Parks and green spaces provide a variety of health benefits by promoting physical activity, connection to nature, and opportunities for community engagement. Nature-based programs can even be prescribed by healthcare providers as part of alternative, cost-effective treatment plans.

In a paper recently published in the North Carolina Medical Journal, Lincoln Larsson and Aaron HippAssociate Professors of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management at NC State, provide insight into how parks and green spaces can help alleviate contemporary health challenges.

We recently spoke with Larson and Hipp to learn more about the value of these spaces, the programs that leverage their benefits, and the equity issues that exist with accessibility. Check it out below.

What defines a green space?

Larson and Hipp: Green spaces can be defined in many ways, from narrow (eg, wooded areas) to wide (eg, any landscape that includes natural elements, such as a backyard or even street trees).

In general, we like to think of green space as a term that includes both natural ecosystems and key elements of the built environment such as public parks, greenways, gardens and forests, as well as private courtyards and other natural spaces.

How do these spaces have a positive impact on physical health?

Larson and Hipp: Since the benefits offered by parks and green spaces are generally free and publicly available, they represent a cost-effective alternative and/or complement to conventional health promotion strategies. These spaces are particularly important for physical health. They create environments that promote active lifestyles and improve access to exercise opportunities. They also improve cardiovascular health by reducing risk factors such as high cholesterol, hypertension and obesity.

In some cases (think community gardens and hosted farmers’ markets), parks can also promote healthy eating habits. And they provide a variety of ecosystem services by improving air quality, regulating temperature and mitigating the effects of severe weather events, all of which also impact our health. These benefits can therefore be felt by people who are physically in parks and green spaces (for example, running in a park) and the communities that live nearby (for example, air quality and climate regulation). temperature).

What mental health benefits do these spaces provide?

Larson and Hipp: Parks and green spaces also provide a number of mental health benefits. People who spend more time in nature experience improved cognitive functioning and attention and reduced stress. They are also less likely to have anxiety and depressive disorders and more likely to report high levels of happiness and well-being.

Connecting to nature and green spaces has also been shown to promote positive youth development. Parks also provide benefits to wider communities, providing spaces where people gather and interact to build social cohesion and foster social capital.

Green land cover also provides economic benefits and has been associated with lower levels of health expenditure and higher levels of financial well-being and security. These benefits have been particularly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, where individuals and communities that had access to parks and green spaces have demonstrated better health outcomes and increased ability to cope with those who do not. were unable to use or access these areas.

What equity issues exist around achieving these health benefits in all communities?

Larson and Hipp: Despite the immense capacity of parks and green spaces to improve health outcomes, these resources often remain inequitably distributed among diverse communities. Neighborhoods with a large proportion of low-income or racial/ethnic minority residents generally have limited access to quality parks and green spaces, including limited programming in the spaces.

Even when parks are located in these communities, they tend to be of lower quality and therefore are often used less frequently. These disparities have only grown during the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting the need to ensure that the benefits of parks and green spaces are accessible and enjoyed by all segments of society.

How can parks and green spaces be leveraged to support community health?

Larson and Hipp: As more and more people recognize the health-promoting potential of parks, a number of programs, tools, and initiatives have been designed to take advantage of these opportunities. Examples of efforts to accentuate these connections include the National Park Service’s “Healthy Parks Healthy People” initiative, the “Leave No Child Inside” movement, and the rise of nature’s prescription programs (or Park Rx) designed to formalize the health benefits of outdoor spaces. with a written prescription from a health care provider.

New partnerships are also playing an increasingly important role. In North Carolina, for example, “Let’s Move Libraries” is a UNC-Greensboro resource for connecting public libraries to active outdoor living opportunities, and 4-H youth development programs run by extension offices. co-ops in every county help young people connect with nature. The Play Streets and Open Streets initiatives that increase access to safe outdoor recreation opportunities highlight another creative trend toward outdoor, nature-based health promotion during the pandemic.

Although challenges persist, the health-related benefits generated by parks and green spaces may be more visible now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, than ever before. At this critical juncture, we need to embrace the value of nature-based interventions both at the individual level (eg, more time outdoors and Park Rx prescriptions for patients) and at the community level (eg, policies and programs that facilitate equitable connections to parks and green spaces). Although more research is needed, the current evidence is clear: increasing the role of access and quality of green space in planning, policy and decision-making in various contexts could ultimately lead to a healthier population. and happier.

This story by Lauren McLaughlin was originally posted on the College of Natural Resources website.

This post was originally published in College of Natural Resources News.

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