Access to Parks and the Outdoors is Crucial for Mental Health in Our Communities

By Teresa L. Penbrooke, PhD, CPRE | Posted on March 20, 2020

Parks and the Outdoors Mental Health 410

As park and recreation professionals, we know in our hearts that good mental health is often related to having access to the outdoors and greenspace. Research over the years has shown that when people are more stressed, anxious and socially isolated, as we are right now due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, having access to parks, trails and natural areas becomes even more important.

Prioritizing Mental Health During the COVID-19 Outbreak

As stated on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website regarding managing stress and mental anxiety around the pandemic:

“The outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) may be stressful for people. Fear and anxiety about a disease can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. Coping with stress will make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger.”

CDC reports that stress caused or aggravated by the outbreak can result in fear and worry about your health and the health of loved ones, changing in sleeping and eating patterns, difficulty concentrating, worsening of chronic health problems, and an increase in the use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five U.S. adults experiences mental illness each year. With twenty percent of the population already directly impacted by mental illness, and elevated levels of stress, anxiety and uncertainty due to the COVID-19 outbreak impacting all of us, it’s imperative that people find ways to prioritize their mental health and manage the stress of this pandemic in positive ways. To cope with stress, CDC recommends taking breaks from watching the news or reading about the pandemic, taking care of your body by being physically active, eating healthy, getting plenty of sleep, stretching or practicing meditation, staying engaged in activities you enjoy and staying connected to others even though we are physically distancing from each other. Spending time in parks, on trails, and in open spaces and natural areas is another effective way to cope.

While it’s recognized that many people have questions and concerns about visiting their local parks, trails or open spaces at this time, we believe that many parks, trails and open spaces can continue to be used in a safe manner that allows people to enjoy the mental and physical health benefits these spaces provide. In all instances though, it is critical to follow and share published CDC and general public health guidelines for response to the current pandemic, and help manage individual stress responses.

As individuals and families navigate their way through this pandemic, it’s also a time to focus on the overall health of communities. While CDC guidance and overall mental health policies have tended to focus on interventions with individuals, recent research focus has shifted to looking at the immediate and long-term environmental determinants of mental health in our communities as a system that we can plan and manage to help people better cope. This means that we can positively affect not only individuals, but also community-wide mental health through strategic systematic environmental interventions. It is important to provide education and also to have more parks and greenspace freely available and accessible to the public so they can have places (with proper social distancing, of course) to move their bodies, connect to nature, and find re-creation of body, mind and spirit on a daily basis.

Research on the Mental Health Benefits of the Outdoors

There is ample research that supports the positive impact of the environment on diseases and health, including mental health. Some research has increasingly focused on the cognitive (thinking capabilities) or attentional benefits of nature experiences. Patterns have emerged which suggest that living in a place with more nature produces more mental restoration, and is likely to benefit cognitive functioning and attentional capacity. Dr. Nancy Wells is an environmental psychologist and professor at Cornell University who studies people's relationship to the built and natural environment throughout one’s health. An interesting paper by Wells and colleagues on the natural environment and disease transmission, is just one of many papers focused on identifying how mental health, behavior, and thought processes can be improved through time outdoors. More literature on the benefits of children and nature can found through the Children and Nature Network

Access to and views of water, now referred to bluespace, may have an even greater effect on reducing psychological distress for some people. Bluespace includes water bodies such as lakes, oceans, and rivers, and may also include larger pools and even smaller human-made features such as water fountains or spraygrounds. Wallace J. Nichols wrote a book in 2014 called Blue Mind which includes compiled references on the mental, physical, and psychological benefits from access to water. Anecdotally I know that for me as a “water person”, even just standing next to the ocean is a major stress reliever.

Research also shows that exposure to parks and natural environments benefits us not only directly, but can also come even through windows. There is currently a broad effort to answer questions about how much time is needed (exposures and the dosage of nature) to promote mental health. Total exposure seems to be most important, but all forms and quantities of exposure to greenspace appear to be helpful.

One way nature exposure might be of benefit is through an effect on rumination, which is a pattern of thought that is associated with heightened risk for depression and other mental illnesses. Think of how you can sometimes get a negative thought stuck in your head and just replay it over and over. Studies show that in healthy participants a brief nature experience, such as a 45 to 90-minute walk in a natural setting, decreases rumination and other negative brain activities, whereas a walk in an urban setting may not. Having accessible natural areas in urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our overly stressed world.

An exception to beneficial aspects seems to be when someone is raised culturally to fear or dislike nature, or is simply not used to being outdoors. Carolyn Finney, Ph.D., writes in Black Faces White Spaces that some cultures, especially some black Americans, have been taught that being outdoors is a dangerous place to be. Finney writes that the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial violence have shaped cultural misunderstandings of the “great outdoors”, along with who can and should have access to natural spaces. These aspects can lead to higher stress for some and need to be sensitively acknowledged. Negative effects can often be addressed through educational and familiarization programs, especially for youth.

Poorly planned parks can actually worsen mental health outcomes in some places, effectively doing the opposite of their intended functions. In neighborhoods facing larger social issues like drug usage and crime, parks can serve as a place for non-sanctioned activities to occur. However, that does not appear to be an argument against building or using parks and greenspaces in low-income neighborhoods. They can be strong assets if built and maintained in a way that considers the issues in the community. It is important to include community members in planning and management of the spaces, and include positive activation and safe design aspects, such as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED).

Some studies have indicated that effects may not only be related to the distance to greenspace and bluespace, but may also be more related to quality of the spaces and awareness that they are there. Although parks planners and researchers are used to assessing the quantity of available land and water, proximity, and accessibility, a measure of the quality of the space is often left out of the picture. This is in part because it is more difficult to measure objectively, and also because as part of larger urban questions, it is not fully understood. In 2018 GP RED conducted research for NRPA on these aspects and identified that increasing awareness of where the parks, greenspaces, and natural areas are located is crucial to providing access. These results are outlined in Awareness and the Use of Parks. People can’t get mental health benefits if they don’t know where to go.

Planning for the Future

Additional recommendations for providing overall access to nature and its effects through parks and natural areas systems planning are to:

  • Add greenspace and bluespace places, activities, and views closer in and equitably around the community
  • Help people start and continue green or blue activities, especially in times of high stress
  • Make spaces and programs fit the needs of nearby users
  • Make green spaces serve multiple activities and uses
  • Support longer visits
  • Reconsider barriers to use
  • Identify and promote awareness of parks and natural areas
  • Value overall parks and recreation system planning to identify gaps and needs for places and programs

As park and recreation professionals, we have the means to help improve mental health in our communities through our well-managed parks and natural areas. This is especially important during times of stress and crisis. We can learn from the needs of today and better plan for addressing stress and mental health in the future. Most of all, don’t forget the biggest recommendation of all – Get your own self outside today!

For more information about NRPA’s response to COVID-19, as well as available resources for park and recreation professionals, please see the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) webpage.

If you'd like suggestions for additional reading on the topic of mental health and the outdoors, please email me!

Teresa L. Penbrooke, PhD, CPRE is the Director of the Healthy Communities Research Group for GP RED and CEO and Founder of GreenPlay.