Climate Change, Parks and Health

June 1, 2017, Feature, by Rich Dolesh

2017 June Feature ClimateChange 410

Last year, the city of Phoenix had 110 days where the temperature reached 100 degrees or higher. As in previous years, the Phoenix department of parks and recreation was confronted with the fact that many visitors to the Desert
Mountain Preserves were seriously unprepared for the conditions they would find themselves in when they took to the trail during the heat of the day. Not only were residents and tourists facing extreme danger on the trails, but their pets were too.

Six hikers died in Arizona last year, and in Phoenix, the fire department was called on to make an ever-growing number of mountain rescues. The parks and recreation department proposed closing certain areas of its desert parks and prohibiting people from hiking on certain trails when the temperature reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Public reaction from citizens was swift and almost universally negative, but the parks department and the fire department continue to face more than 200 mountain rescues a year with no sign of conditions getting better.

In San Diego County, Parks and Recreation Director Brian Albright faced an unpleasant and discouraging truth last year. The Tijuana River Valley Park, in the southernmost watershed of San Diego County, is the last remaining natural watershed that is not cut by highways or rail lines. It is part of a beautiful, fertile river estuary that contains some of the greatest wildlife diversity in its park system. The park lies in the heart of the Pacific flyway and is an international destination for bird watchers. More than 340 species of birds have been recorded in this park, including the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher.

During a period of six months last year, Albright witnessed the die-off of more than 50,000 trees in this park, mostly willows, due to the extreme drought that has gripped the Southwestern United States for the past six years. “It was a striking and awakening moment for me,” he says. “The die-off of trees in a river valley like this eliminates habitat for rare bird and animal species, creates a flood risk, and impacts both air and water quality. It is why we take such care to protect our regional tree canopy.”

In Miami-Dade County, the parks and recreation department faces an entirely different challenge, namely unexpected and frequent flooding for no apparent cause. This “blue-sky flooding” is caused by king tides, or tides that are higher and lower due to the gravitational effect of the moon on the earth. Such tides can occur twice a month or more, and occur without rain or storms.

“Nuisance flooding,” as the phenomenon is sometimes called, has become more than a nuisance, however. Salt-water intrusions kill turf, poison gardens and degrade fresh-water marshes. Flood waters rise into stormwater discharge pipes and sewer overflows produce an unpleasant and unhealthful backwash of toxic substances and bacteria-laden water. In Miami-Dade County, as in many other coastal communities, it may not be the initial flood waters that pose the greatest health hazard to communities, but rather the water that remains that cannot drain away. Parks and recreation areas located in flood-prone areas are often the first to be flooded and the most impacted by such flooding.

What does each of these weather-related challenges to park and recreation agencies have in common even though they may be thousands of miles apart? Each of them can be attributed to climate change.

Climate Change and Our Way of Life
NASA recently reported that April 2017 was the second-hottest month ever in 137 years of global recordkeeping, with average temperatures just slightly under April 2016, the hottest month ever recorded. Record hot temperatures are part of a trend of ever-hotter weather patterns that are now starting to regularly affect U.S. communities nationwide.

Other climate-caused weather changes are occurring with greater frequency as well, including sea level rise, more extreme weather events and storms, much heavier localized rainfall and, paradoxically, more extreme droughts in certain areas of the Southeast, Southwest and West. Some climate scientists have characterized the changes that are occurring as “hotter hots, wetter wets and drier dries.”

The high average annual temperatures are linked to the rise in atmospheric carbon, now also at a peak of 406 parts per million and climbing. A preponderance of climate scientists link global warming to the human burning of fossil fuels and other greenhouse gas emissions, a cause that is vigorously disputed by climate change deniers, but which is happening, nonetheless, on a global scale. Our climate is changing dramatically, and it will have substantial impact on our own communities and our nation.

The issues for parks and recreation resulting from climate change are not altered by whether the changes to our climate are primarily caused by humans. No matter what the causes, the impacts are undeniable and will continue to affect us for many years, if not for many generations, with ever-increasing severity. We must begin now to develop climate-resilient parks that are capable of adapting to the changes that are occurring and to mitigate the impacts as best as we can. This article is the first of three to be published over the coming year that will examine the impacts of climate change on parks and recreation in terms of health, outdoor recreation and nature.

It is worth noting that not all of the impacts of climate change are negative. In fact, some may be beneficial to certain segments of our industry — more on this in a future article — because climate change will surely change the face of outdoor recreation as we now know it. As it does, there may be significant opportunities for innovators and entrepreneurs. But, to deny that climate changes are happening or to minimize the significance of the changes that are taking place will not alter the fact that we must deal with these impacts now. And, the most significant of climate change impacts are those that affect human health.

Howard Frumkin, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences and former dean of the University of Washington School of Public Health, says, “Climate change is perhaps the biggest health challenge we are facing in this century. We don’t want to be overly alarmist, but this is truly an alarming situation. It is as important as anything we have faced on a global scale. Is it certain? No, but the probabilities are very high.” To minimize or ignore the dangers makes no sense. He continues: “We buy home insurance to protect against fire, flood and other dangers. Why wouldn’t we act with the same care when it comes to our health?”

Early this year, the American Public Health Association (APHA) kicked off the Year of Climate Change and Health. At that meeting, APHA Executive Director Dr. Georges Benjamin said, “We’re committed to making sure the nation knows about the effects of climate change on health. If anyone doesn’t think this is a severe problem, they are fooling themselves.”

Surili Patel, senior program manager for Environmental Health in APHA’s Center for Public Health Policy, enumerated the health impacts of climate change: “Rising temperatures which cause heat waves and urban heat island effects, vector-borne diseases — such as those carried by ticks and mosquitoes — diminished air quality, increased flooding, and storms, food and water-related infections, all of which can have significant impacts on physical and mental health.” She continued: “These conditions can lead to multiple intersections. For example, on extremely hot days, your health resources can become depleted and you cannot recover as quickly as you otherwise might. It is harder to breathe, and you are more susceptible to air pollution. Particulate matter and ground-level ozone affect you more.” And, if this were not enough, “Chronic stress and anxiety are now tied to climate change, and make other health conditions worse.”

Who Is Most Affected?
Those most affected by climate change are often those with the least ability to do anything about it, according to Patel. “Climate change is blind to race, ethnicity and gender.” Young children and the very old are most at risk, says Frumkin. “Children, the elderly and the deprived are most impacted. It varies with the hazard, but in the case of extreme heat, these populations can’t do anything about it. They can’t dissipate heat and they can’t take action to get out of the heat.”

Frumkin points out that outdoor workers are also on the frontlines of extreme heat, and the problems associated with it, such as air pollution, magnify health impacts. Climate change makes chronic health conditions worse, so allergies, asthma and other conditions are aggravated.

George Luber, chief of the Climate and Health Program at the National Center for Environmental Health for the CDC, says the greatest negative impacts of climate change are really determined by place and are place-specific and path-dependent. For example, in cases of trying to adapt to extreme heat, people may not be prepared, are not educated to the dangers and are susceptible to local factors that make conditions worse, such as a lack of air conditioning or very high nighttime temperatures.

How Can We Adapt?
One of the greatest concerns that park and recreation agencies may face regarding the heightened health dangers from climate change is how they will affect children. NRPA and a number of other organizations have been fully engaged in the national effort to connect kids to nature. We cannot be unmindful of the dangers in encouraging kids to go outside on red-alert air quality days and when temperatures exceed 95 degrees regularly in many U.S. cities during the summer. Our challenge is to be able to adapt our regular programming and activities and still be able to get kids outdoors in nature in ways that are healthful and safe.

In Phoenix, the arid conditions, high daily temperatures and a lack of shade can make park visits unenjoyable if not unhealthful. Inger Erickson, director of Phoenix Parks and Recreation, says that they have developed a shade and tree master plan to help them reach a goal of having 25 percent of the city land surface covered with tree canopy. “Our ‘Fit Phoenix’ initiative encourages hiking and walking. Shade is essential if we want people to enjoy these kinds of healthful activities in our parks.”

Maria Nardi, acting director of Miami-Dade Parks, Recreation and Open Space, says their strategies for improving individual and community health are very much a part of their recently adopted master plan. “Our master plan integrally links the entire infrastructure of parks, recreation and open spaces to transit to achieve greater walkability and bikability. The plan recommends preventative measures as well to allow communities to achieve greater resiliency to storms, sea level rise and flooding.” In terms of health impacts, Nardi says, “there is an intrinsic value of creating a connected community. It gives strength and resiliency to people and natural systems.”

What Park and Recreation Agencies Can Do
Ana Alvarez, deputy general manager of East Bay Regional Parks (EBRP), one of the nation’s largest special park districts with more than 120,000 acres of land in the east San Francisco Bay area, says, “We are trying to create a ‘climate-smart’ park system based on the ecological functions of the extraordinary green spaces their parks protect in the highest density urban area of California.” She notes that EBRP parks perform important ecosystem services — storing carbon, recharging groundwater, cleaning air and filtering water — that may go unrecognized. “Our parks are more than just pretty green spaces and great places to recreate — they are essential to health, and we are intentionally, and very deliberately, addressing how we can improve health every day,” she explains.

To meet the challenges of climate change, says Frumkin, “We must re-think the ways we do things in parks and recreation. To get around extreme heat conditions, we need to redo our program schedules. Public activities can be scheduled early in the morning or at dusk. Parks need to close during extreme heat and bad air days. We need to supply water to anyone engaging in sports or recreating on very hot days. We need to re-train coaches and park administrators on how to adapt activities to such conditions. On a larger scale, we need to rethink landscaping in parks, reducing those plants and trees that produce high amounts of allergens and pollen. We must rethink forest management in parks, especially for urban forests.”

Patel of APHA concurs: “We are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change, and perhaps, we will be the last to have the ability to take effective action.” She adds that APHA wants sound science to guide decisions. “We want every American to understand the effects of climate change on health, and we want to mobilize the public to action.” Parks can and do play a very important role, she says.

Luber of the CDC says, “Parks and recreation allow communities to reduce health vulnerabilities. A healthy environment, daily exercise and mental health improvements can help to reduce risk of exposure to disease and illness. Parks can be a risk reducer by allowing people of all ages to become healthier.” In addition, Luber says, “Parklands build natural capacity and resiliency to the many drivers of climate change — extreme weather, floods, heat, drought and other conditions.”

“There is another important service that parks and rec can provide,” says Luber. “Ecosystem services are too often seen only as improving water or air quality or habitat for wildlife. Rarely are parks and recreation areas seen in terms of health services. If we start looking at parks as health centers and quantify the results, we can get a much better picture of how important they are to the health and well-being of every community and the individuals who live in them. Parks are essential in our defense against climate change.”

Rich Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Strategic Initiatives.