America’s parks are essential to healing our planet and ourselves

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Hikers walk along a paved trail along the North Fork of the Virgin River in Zion National Park on May 15.

As the pandemic wears on and climate change intensifies, we can find a glimmer of hope close to home in our neighborhood parks. The health and environmental benefits of parks are well documented but too often underappreciated. Yet from small community gems to sprawling green spaces, parks hold the power to help us and our planet heal.

Faced with a four-fold increase in anxiety and depression among adults nationwide and a teen mental health crisis triggered by the pandemic, parks can be a critical salve. Parks help to alleviate mental stress, and park use has soared across the country as people seek out respite and relief. In fact, studies show that time in parks can decrease levels of stress and anxiety by 50 percent. A walk in the park reduces attention deficits in children comparable to the effects of medication. Safe, nearby parks also increase the amount of physical activity people engage in, which significantly reduces rates of obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. 

Parks and green spaces are equally important to the health of our environment. Parks absorb carbon and clean the air, soak up stormwater and slow flooding and reduce heat, which has become the number one weather-related killer. Research reveals that neighborhoods within half a mile of a large park are six degrees cooler than neighborhoods without nearby parks. Increasingly, parks are being embraced as important tools for mitigating the effects of climate change and safeguarding people from its harms.

To truly reap these benefits, we need to make sure everyone, everywhere, can visit a park nearby. Today, over 100 million people in the U.S., including 28 million children, do not have a quality park or green space within a half-mile from their home. And, across the United States, parks serving primarily people of color are half the size of parks that serve white people and are five times more crowded. 

As a result, these communities suffer. People who live in neighborhoods with little to no green space have a 44 percent higher rate of physician-diagnosed anxiety disorders than people who live in the greenest neighborhoods. The lack of green spaces also makes these communities more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Cities across the country are working to increase park access and address park disparities with the help of a federal park grant program through the Land and Water Conservation Fund called the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership, turning underutilized urban land into vibrant community assets. 

The city of Mobile, Ala., is transforming Three Mile Creek — once the city’s drinking water source but more recently a degraded urban stormwater conveyance — into part of a larger 18+ mile greenway system that will reconnect diverse neighborhoods and provide much-needed outdoor recreation options for its 195,000 citizens. 

In Denver, Colo., Montbello Open Space Park brings play areas, walking trails and green infrastructure to one of the city’s most densely populated and diverse neighborhoods. It started as a vacant lot.

In Portland, Ore., the 25-acre Cully Park features a community garden where residents can grow their own produce, sports fields and a large playground with water play facilities. In its previous life, it was a landfill.

Community leaders were able to bring about these transformations with crucial funding from the federal government, leveraging local support. The Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership is providing much-needed match dollars to help other cities across the country build and improve their parks too, but there is more work to be done. The need for parks and close-to-home recreation has never been greater. And the physical, mental and environmental benefits of parks have never been clearer. 

Despite these facts, the U.S. spends annually only $117 per resident on city parks, in comparison to spending $11,582 per person on health care. Low-income communities and communities of color have historically received even lower park investments than whiter, wealthier communities. As Congress and the Biden administration look ahead to the 2023 federal budget, they must make a robust investment in parks.  

From improving the health and wellness of citizens to creating a healthier physical environment, parks are vital to our future. To realize the power of parks, we must treat them like the essential civic infrastructure they are.

Catherine Nagel is executive director of the City Parks Alliance.

Tags Climate change mitigation Mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic Outdoor recreation Parks

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