A Framework for Assessing Equitable Health Outcomes of Parks provides park and recreation professionals with a powerful set of tools and methods for assessing both the equitability and economic value of their park systems. This framework is unique because it focuses on equity and economics in the context of the health benefits of parks. This is an exciting new way to measure and communicate the value of park systems.
Park and recreation professionals know parks make people and communities healthier. Physical health usually comes to mind when considering the health benefits of parks, but parks also contribute to mental, social and environmental health. The Framework provides steps to define exactly how parks improve health in these four dimensions and by how much. It then estimates the economic value of these health benefits – usually as cost savings. This data prepares park and recreation professionals to more fully demonstrate the value of parks and recreation to advocate for greater support from local elected officials and decision-makers.
Here is an overview of the four dimensions of health as considered in the Framework.
Most parks contain amenities and programming that directly support the physical health of users. Research shows that proximity to and use of parks is associated with increased levels of physical activity and improved health outcomes. Regular physical activity can reduce the likelihood of a range of conditions including obesity, diabetes, arthritis and cardiovascular disease. Regardless of skill level, fundamental park activities such as walking, biking, active recreation and play all deliver physical health benefits to individuals. The Framework guides park and recreation professionals through combining park usage data with local health data to demonstrate the correlation between park usage and improved physical health outcomes in their community.
Like physical health, proximity to and use of parks has been shown to contribute to positive mental health outcomes. Parks provide critical exposure to nature and green space. This exposure has been associated with many mental health benefits including increased abilities to cope with stress, mental fatigue recovery, reduced levels of depression and anxiety, greater self-esteem and greater overall life satisfaction. The Framework provides resources and methods for park and recreation professionals to link park usage data with local mental health data to demonstrate the impact of parks on users’ mental health.
The social health benefits of parks are closely linked to the mental health benefits. Parks bring people together which fosters diverse and meaningful social interactions. These experiences improve the social health of a community by strengthening a sense of belonging, social cohesion and comfort. Benefits are felt at both the individual and community levels and research indicates a measurable increase in community attachment and public safety is associated with proximity to and use of parks. The Framework guides park and recreation professionals through public data sets and resources to build a picture of how local social health conditions interact with park systems.
Parks improve the environmental health of communities in many ways including flood mitigation, improving air quality, reducing urban heat island effects and conserving wildlife habitat. Like the other dimensions of health, research shows that proximity to and use of parks is associated with increased climate resiliency and improved environmental quality. Climate resiliency and environmental quality benefit communities in many ways ranging from better stormwater management with tree canopy coverage to reducing asthma rates by improving air quality. The Framework provides data sources and methods for park and recreation professionals to measure environmental health specific to their communities and regions.
- Parks improve physical health outcomes by increasing physical activity.
- Parks improve mental health through exposure to nature and green space.
- Parks improve social health by increasing community attachment.
- Parks improve environmental health through climate resiliency.
All of these make communities healthier and have economic benefits. The Framework equips park and recreation professionals with data and methods to assess the health and economic benefits their park systems provide for their community and make the data-driven case that equitable park systems are a profitable investment.
Watch for a user-friendly tool launching in 2023 that will guide park and recreation professionals through the Framework to measure the equitability and economic value of the health benefits their park systems provide. A Framework for Assessing Equitable Health Outcomes of Parks was produced by Urban Institute in partnership with NRPA and made possible by generous funding from The JPB Foundation.
Kevin Roth, Ph.D. (he/him) is Vice President of Research, Evaluation and Technology at NRPA.
Kelby Rose, Ph.D. (he/him) is a Technical Writer at NRPA.