As the water flowed softly over the rock falls and the birds began their evening tunes, I stood there, smiling and listening to nature’s beautiful and engaging song. The painted scene before me enchanted people from all walks of life, who strolled up and down the boardwalk to view the sights of Cumberland Falls State Park near Corbin, Kentucky. As I stood there, engulfed in the wonder of nature, people walked by me, smiling, laughing, huffing and puffing, and talking to their friends and family. Not a single person had a sour face, was irritated, or displayed anything negative or contrary. Parks often serve as place for families and friends to meet and enjoy the unique places set aside and each other’s company. As the sun set on my time at the park for the day, I thought about the wondrous joys and benefits that parks bring to me and others.
Whether on a national level, where large tracts of land are set aside to preserve special places, or a local level, where smaller landscapes serve as recreation outlets for specific neighborhoods, parks are vitally important to all of us. As July is Park and Recreation Month, it may be a good time to reflect on the benefits that parks offer. As mentioned so many times before, parks have health, economic, environmental and social benefits for all of us.
Access to local parks and open areas has been linked to increased visitation and use. As the worsening statistics related to inactivity and obesity continue to be of concern, parks offer places to alleviate these issues for everyone. Significant evidence shows that park access increases exercise of those living close to the area and reduces many ailments such as heart disease, diabetes and depression. Visiting a park also increases your mood, cultivating a healthy mind as well as body! As research continues, the health benefits of nature and park areas are further highlighted, and the need for such areas is emphasized.
The economic benefits of parks is a numbers game, as having parks nearby has been linked to increased property values, whether urban, suburban or rural in context. Also, creating or cultivating green space has been linked to revitalization of economically depressed areas, generating inflows of people seeking to enjoy these spaces. Furthermore, parks are often factors included when businesses decide where to build or invest in new development. Businesses often want areas where their employees will be happy and healthy citizens, meaning parks are a part of the equation for job and local economic growth. Whether people visit locally or travel varied distances, parks also serve as tourism hotspots. When people visit a destination’s parks and natural areas, they spend money on food, entertainment, overnight accommodations and much more. For these reasons, economies that include parks and recreation flourish. And it goes without saying that parks also provide benefits for the environment. Park areas provide vegetation that cleans the air, water and landscape, and they provide a valuable habitat for wildlife. Tree canopies are linked to reducing heat effects in cities by providing shade and cooling for developed areas.
From children to seniors, the park is a place for everyone to play and enjoy their leisure time. Parks foster social interactions, providing for the development of a sense of community. Park visitors, whether at the local neighborhood playground, a national park, or perhaps Cumberland Falls State Park, are all directly or indirectly enjoying the company of others.
As I walked back to my car and concluded my visit to a fantastic state park, the wind slowly pushed through the canopy overhead and the tree frogs began an evening ritual. I realized perhaps I need to do more to acknowledge the benefits I receive from having parks in my life. I simply cannot imagine a life in which I do not visit places where I can hear people say, “How cool is that?” and “Dad/Mom, look at that!” I cannot imagine a life where I could not go to the local park and hear the sounds of nature all around me. I cannot imagine a life without parks, and I need to do more to tell and convince others of this as well.
As I have expressed to so many people, the benefits of parks are well-documented, but these benefits need to be better marketed and communicated. This July, when you visit a park, large or small, think about how you benefit from parks. Tell someone about those many benefits, the many ways each and every one of us has a better life because of parks.
Michael J. Bradley, Ph.D.,is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Recreation and Park Administration at Eastern Kentucky University.