Healthy Parks, Healthy People

Written by Scott Kratz

Nature and parks make us healthier. It’s true – you can read the reports on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website. Research has shown that access to a park often translates into more physical activity. In addition, time spent in natural environments is known to be linked to increased mental health. Two theories support this: biophilia (literally, the love of life) and attention restoration theory.  Both of these theories support the notion that nature restores our focus and helps us relax. An added bonus: green spaces like parks are beneficial to the environment by reducing air and water pollution. One perhaps unexpected outcome is increased social capital by providing places where residents can safely gather to play, relax and exercise.

Peter Harnik, Director of The Trust for Public Land Center for City Park Excellence, has explored the links between parks and health in his wonderful study, Measuring the Economic Value of a City Park System, a report Harnik co-wrote with Ben Welle that includes an examination of park’s health impacts. In the study, he explains that parks can result in what he refers to as “direct income” and “direct savings.” Because parks offer spaces for exercise, people are decreasing their risk for many potential health issues such as obesity and heart disease among other ailments. By avoiding these, he suggests that park users are saving money that they would have spent on health care.

Pew Charitable Trusts and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are also looking at the connection between health and the built environment. These two organizations are collaborating to raise awareness about Health Impact Assessments or HIAs. HIAs aim to assess risks and benefits then provide feedback in the form of recommendations that promote health and prevent illness. These can be useful before the creation of a park in the design process.

The Bridge Park team recognizes the importance of creating a safe and healthy environment for the park’s future users. Improving public health is one of our four main goals by providing spaces for running, kayaking and playing. Fun fact: the Bridge Park was designed to have an exact 1/2 mile loop (so if you walk 52 laps, you’ve completed a marathon!) To ensure we are meeting this important goal, staff are gathering baseline information about nearby communities’ health that can be measured again once the park opens to determine impact. As part of the HIA, we will also hold focus groups to fine tune programming concepts which can further shape the park’s design. Working together we can make a healthier District of Columbia!