Parks: Improving Mental Health and Well-Being

April 1, 2015, Department, by Allison Colman

The Portland Department of Parks and Recreation established its community gardening program 40 years ago.It is a well-known fact that physical activity and a nutritious diet can improve health and well-being. Most of us know that we are supposed to eat more vegetables and consume fewer fats, that we need at least 30 minutes of exercise per day, and that we need to engage in strength training and recreational activities to maintain our physical health. While these things are undeniably good for us and do contribute to being healthier and reducing chronic disease, it’s important to note that these recommendations don’t cover every aspect of health and wellness. In addition to being physically healthy, we also need to consider the mental components of health and wellness. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), mental illness affects approximately 13 million American adults each year.1 Mental health plays a major role in people’s ability to maintain good physical health and participate in health-promoting behaviors. People who are mentally healthy are happier, have lower levels of depression and anxiety, maintain healthier relationships with others and feel that they are making a contribution to society.2

Several studies support the idea that more green space (e.g., community parks) results in greater mental health for communities. A recent study from England’s University of Exeter titled Longitudinal Effects on Mental Health of Moving to Greener and Less Green Urban Areas3, illustrates just how important parks are for long-term mental health and well-being. The study determined that people who moved to urban areas with more green space reported higher mental health scores — meaning they were happier and had lower levels of depression and anxiety. Interestingly, the study also showed that the mental health scores continued to improve each year for the duration of the study. In the United States, another study titled “Exposure to Neighborhood Green Space and Mental Health: Evidence from the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin”4 found similar results. This study examined the relationship between environmental green space and mental health in both urban and rural areas and found that “higher levels of neighborhood green space were associated with significantly lower levels of symptomology for depression, anxiety and stress.” Both of these studies provided significant evidence that parks have a positive impact on the mental health of their communities.

Parks can help to improve mental health in a variety of ways, from simply providing the actual green space for people to engage in their natural surroundings, to facilitating programs like tai chi, yoga and qigong classes that engage the mind and body, to sponsoring and developing neighborhood gardens that reduce stress and anxiety. Many park and recreation agencies already foster programs that help support mental health. The San Diego Park and Recreation Department provides “open-space parks” within their community. These parks provide community members with opportunities to engage in nature through hiking, walking, biking and other activities. In addition to the open-space parks, San Diego offers the popular tai chi and yoga classes in their parks and community centers. Tai chi, an ancient Chinese practice, uses a combination of physical movements, deep breathing, focus and energy flow to reduce stress and anxiety. With these open-space parks and through its classes, San Diego’s community is experiencing both physical and mental health benefits. 

Gardening is another tool that parks can use to help stimulate mental health. Researchers have found that gardening can help to lower blood pressure, reduce stress, increase brain activity and produce endorphins.5 The Portland, Oregon, Parks and Recreation Department’s community gardens program has offered gardening opportunities since 1975. The program provides the chance for community members to garden, volunteer, engage socially with neighbors, learn from other cultures and give back to the community. Heading into its 40th year, the program features 50 community gardens located throughout the city with more than 2,180 individual garden plots. The program is facilitated by four staff members and more than 2,300 annual volunteers. Another large part of their garden program, Produce for People, provides produce for food pantries in an effort to help combat Portland’s high poverty rate. In 2014, Produce for People donated 36,545 pounds of produce to food pantries across the city. Both San Diego’s and Portland’s efforts to provide environments and programming that encourage mental health are prime examples of how park and recreation agencies across the country can make a difference.

So what should we do with this information? Well, we know that parks are a major contributing factor to community health both physically and mentally. As park and recreation professionals, we need to:

  • Take the lead on encouraging communities to strategically incorporate parks and green space into their initial design plans;
  • Form partnerships within our local governing bodies and community agencies to collaborate on health-driven projects; 
  • Establish programming that encourages mental and physical health and well-being for all members of our communities; and
  • Monitor progress and stay up-to-date on current trends in the health and wellness industry. 

By taking these steps, we can ensure that members of our communities will have access to park and recreation facilities and programs that encourage the many components of health and wellness.

Allison Colman is a Program Manager at NRPA.  



1) National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). NIMH strategic plan (revised 2008) [Internet]. Bethesda, MD: NIMH; 2008.

2) Healthy People 2020.  

3) Longitudinal Effects on Mental Health of Moving to Greener and Less Green Urban Areas; Environ. Sci. Technol., Ian Alcock and Matthew White, 2014.

4) “Exposure to Neighborhood Green Space and Mental Health: Evidence from the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin”; Int J Environ Res Public Health, Kristin M. Beyer and Andrea Kaltenbach, 2014.

5) American Horticultural Therapy Association