Prescribing nature for improved health makes an economic case for the Land and Water Conservation Fund
As a pediatrician with 20 years experience, I have seen and confronted, through thousands of patients, the health statistics we hear about in the news each day. The children and families I serve, right here in our nation’s capital, suffer and die prematurely from our modern-day plague: chronic disease. Children look more and more like their adult counterparts, as they view an average of seven hours per day of screen time and spend less than an hour per day outdoors, consume unhealthy foods and beverages and struggle with seemingly endless stressful schedules and checklists. Inactivity, poor diet and stress are strongly linked to obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and serious mental illness, including depression and anxiety, among other chronic diseases.
Fortunately, there is a “vaccine” for this chronic disease epidemic: spend more time outdoors. There are now over 300 scientific studies that show a strong correlation between time spent outdoors in natural settings, like parks, forests, and green spaces, and improved health outcomes. These improvements in physical and mental health, by virtue of spending time in nature, include regulated blood pressure, decrease in symptoms of anxiety and depression, and an improvement in immune function and body mass index (a measure of obesity), to name just a few. Because of the growing evidence to support spending more time outdoors, an increasing number of doctors and health professionals around the country are prescribing nature, often in the form of park and recreation visits, as part and parcel of the work doctors do everyday to help patients improve their health.
In order for my patients to fill their park prescription, we must have safe and publicly accessible land and waterways. Federal, state and local parks, trails, rivers, forests, refuges and other important natural areas are not just for recreation—they are an essential ingredient in restoring and maintaining public health, which in turn supports lower health care costs and economically resilient communities. Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect for Central Park, stated over 150 years ago that parks and other green spaces are essential to a healthy populus and ultimately, a well-functioning city. Without accessible green spaces, people become unhealthy, unhappy, and unproductive, which causes negative economic outcomes.
There is a renewed interest in creating urban and rural green spaces, specifically designed to improve health and wellness. As the Founding Director of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network, I have seen a renaissance in therapeutic landscape design that has reentered the health care world and beyond. Providers see the positive health impacts arising from green spaces and green infrastructure—trees, green roofs and green walls, rain gardens, and other nature-rich designs, in a variety of settings. This concept, extrapolated to both urban and rural community greenspace design, can support the health, wellness and economic vitality of individuals and entire communities, through such programs as the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
From both a public health and economic perspective, we must conserve, protect, and in some areas, create more public green spaces. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a critical program that enables us, and future generations, to stay invested in our country’s health and well-being through the establishment and continued conservation and protection of urban and rural recreation areas and green spaces.
Dr. Robert Zarr is a board-certified pediatrician at Unity Health Care. He previously served as the Park Rx Advisor to the National Park Service in his national advocacy to connect people to parks. Naomi A. Sachs, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Associate at Cornell University and Founding Director of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network.
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