Designing Parks for Health

October 1, 2016, Feature, by Joanna Lombard, AIA, LEED, AP

Advances in park and urban planning strategies are moving parks away from being use-specific to being connected systems that serve as infrastructure that supports a community's health and well-being.Parks are the infrastructure of our communities. The locus for daily walks and memorable civic events, parks represent the identity of place. Very few buildings achieve the iconic status of most parks. Ask anyone to meet in front of a notable structure and it will likely require an address. Choose a park as the meeting place and the question moves to specifics — By the fountain? At the entrance?

In the United States, parks have been understood as essential to community health for the past 200 years, including Asa Grey’s garden cemetery movement, Frederick Law Olmsted’s Boston Fens and his “lungs of the city” metaphor associated with the design of Central Park in New York. These parks set a standard for improving ecological health through the plant and water systems of the park, and community health through clean air and access to nature. While designers anecdotally and through their own personal experience felt natural settings provided individual health benefits, a body of data supporting these theories had yet to exist.

In the second half of the 20th century, as epidemiologists and public health researchers began to study the growing impact of chronic disease, the built environment emerged more clearly as a significant factor. Seminal studies had already documented the link between longevity and social interaction, finding that across time and culture, people with higher levels of social interaction lived longer than those with fewer social contacts. Meanwhile, the post-WWII generation had moved from walkable cities and town centers to car-centric suburbs in a new settlement pattern of sprawl, which removed social interaction and physical activity from the daily routine. By the 21st century, researchers studying the increasing rates of deleterious health outcomes — cancer, diabetes, heart disease and a host of related ailments — focused more specifically on the built environment and its impact on physical activity.

By now, however, parks had followed the same settlement pattern of sprawl as new parks were placed in drivable, rather than walkable, distances from neighborhoods. And, just as buildings stopped serving many simultaneous and diverse uses, parks followed the same trend with a focus on single-use spaces — a baseball diamond, a tennis court. So, just as single-use buildings stood empty in their off-hours, single-use parks were usually depopulated outside of game time. 

The result of these kinds of physical and functional separations could be seen in the vast expansion of driveways and parking lots, and the diminishment of places that had once served as lively neighborhood centers. In the process of this radical post-WWII spatial experiment in which towns and cities became adjunct to highways and roads, and life moved off the streets and sidewalks and into cars, parks became use-specific destinations instead of the lifeblood of daily infrastructure. The separation of life into pods of single-uses enforced a pattern of commuting from place to place, which further limited the capacity of parks to provide the social interaction and physical activity essential to health and well-being. 

Florida’s Miami-Dade County is an exemplar of this settlement pattern. Its first parks evolved as plantings along roadsides. One of its earliest, and now iconic, parks was built on a site that had been mined for its oolitic limestone and was dotted with leftover mining equipment. Fortunately, the early parks department staff understood the significant history and potential of parks. William Lyman Phillips, a young associate from Olmsted Brothers, worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps to create parks in discarded areas like the former quarry, as well as the county’s most beautiful shorelines. As much as was accomplished, however, the network of parks remained auto-centric and destination oriented.

At the opening of the 21st century, the Miami-Dade Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces (MDPROS) leadership engaged in an open planning process to imagine a new future with a connected system of greenways and blueways, neighborhood parks, transit-oriented parks and development that would provide a resilient network for ecological and population health. The original team, led by Maria Nardi, now assistant director of planning and design excellence at MDPROS, conducted extensive community engagement sessions to develop a vision that represented the aspirations of residents, as well as advances in park and urban planning strategies that put people first.

As Nardi and the MDPROS professionals worked with national and local landscape, park and urban designers to develop the new masterplan, the need for impact accountability for the various strategies became increasingly evident. This marked the beginning of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Miami’s Built Environment, Behavior and Health Research Group. The linking of community health outcomes and the new masterplan can be seen, for example, in the goal to provide parks within walking distance of every resident.

Approved by the Miami-Dade County Commission in 2008, and subsequently adopted as part of the county’s Comprehensive Development Master Plan, its principles were also adopted by the school board, as well as the region’s 34 municipalities, three state parks and two national parks — Biscayne and Everglades National Parks. The Master Plan also represents a signature effort to assess action plans in relation to research-validated strategies for enhancing community health.

Data-Informed Design Decision-Making

As the teams from MDPROS and the University of Miami worked together to identify leading impacts of the built environment on the health and well-being of Miami-Dade County residents, the research group drew on a generation of public health investigations. Health researchers 50 years ago had demonstrated the importance of social interaction, and by the opening years of the 21st century, a comprehensive series of studies demonstrated the impact of the built environment on physical activity and chronic disease. 

In Miami-Dade County, the twin pillars of health — social interaction and physical activity — which had naturally occurred in a daily walk through a neighborhood were now, for a large part of the population, lost to the isolation of car trips. A trip to the park, in most locations, is beyond the distance of a walk. The research group of faculty from the Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health Sciences and the School of Architecture had published findings during the past decade on the benefits of mixed-use blocks on children and social-support features, such as balconies and stoops, for elders. Building on this work with funding from the Office of Policy Development and Research in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Health Foundation of South Florida, the team studied greenness on the county’s neighborhood blocks and its relationship to health outcomes in older adults.

When 2010-2011 health data for almost a quarter million Miami-Dade Medicare beneficiaries over age 65 were examined in relation to greenness based on NASA satellite imagery, researchers found that neighborhood blocks with higher levels of greenness were associated with a significantly lower chronic disease risk for the residents of those blocks. Living on a higher greenness block was associated with risk reductions of 14 percent for diabetes, 13 percent for hypertension and 10 percent for lipid disorders — or, to put this in a larger context, 49 fewer chronic conditions per 1,000 residents, equivalent to a reduction in the biomedical aging of the study population by three years.

The finding that the impact of greenness levels was proportionately stronger among all racial and ethnic groups in lower-income neighborhoods suggests that the addition of trees, parks and open spaces in low-income neighborhoods could also address issues of health disparities to achieve greater parks equity, a foundational principle of the MDPROS Master Plan. Nardi and MDPROS Director Jack Kardys collaborated with the research group on the interpretation of these findings, and after the results went online in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, they announced the results of the study at the department’s sixth annual Great Parks Summit and conducted workshops for planners and designers to apply the results to a current park retrofit project.

Nardi believes that “working with emerging evidence on parks and built-environment impacts on health and well-being enables parks and public spaces to contribute to more equitable communities.” She also observes that collaborations with community partners in both research and implementation “offer the most effective way to achieve beneficial outcomes.” Current MDPROS partners include the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County, Public Housing and Community Development and the Transportation and Public Works Department. These partnerships have led to enhanced data-mapping, which enables broader, shared awareness of the conditions in greatest need of amelioration. Nardi noted that, “MDPROS is then able to correlate data to capital projects.” 

Park Design for Health 

The MDPROS Master Plan is a comprehensive document that addresses both the internal conditions of parks and the connections of parks to neighborhoods, based on the understanding that the realm of parks begins at each resident’s door and extends through the connective fabric of the city and its parks and open spaces. With an equally comprehensive body of data on the health impacts of the built environment, and in particular, greenness and parks, the research group consolidated this work into five, key points that represent leading elements of the Master Plan, supported by extensive research demonstrating beneficial health associations. 

1. Mixed-Use

The five points begin with mixed-use. Access to mixed-use destinations provides multiple reasons for more people to walk. Neighborhoods with mixed-use destinations show higher levels of social interaction and physical activity, essential elements of a healthy lifestyle. Mixed-use in a parks context can mean that the park is part of a mixed-use district with shops, residences and other kinds of activities nearby, or that the park itself serves as a mixed-use destination in the neighborhood. This can be seen in parks that provide for a variety of uses within the park, and extend to include opportunities for food and other services. 

2. Connectivity

Mixed-use depends on connectivity. Multiple destinations are only beneficial when they are accessible. Studies show that people walk more in areas with connected sidewalks and having many route choices is associated with high connectivity. A greater density of intersections, for example, is associated with more walking and higher levels of physical activity. The ability to access mixed-use destinations through a variety of paths ensures a greater likelihood of frequent social interaction, as well as the benefits of physical activity through walking. Generally, shorter blocks and more paths connecting blocks support more activity and community cohesion. The Master Plan illustrates numerous conditions for increasing connectivity to parks and enhancing neighborhood walkability. This reinforces the concept of parks and open spaces as opportunities to build connectedness throughout an otherwise sprawling region.

3. Greenness

The third element, and most obviously related to parks, is the presence of greenness. Shade trees, green spaces and opportunities for community gardens provide significant health benefits. Often, parks dedicated to a particular sport may be limited in providing greenness. This is where the streetscape and sidewalk system that connects a park to its neighborhood can help to contribute greenness. There is a significant body of research on the role of neighborhood greenness in enhancing community identity and encouraging physical activity. There is also evidence that higher levels of greenness are associated with higher property values. The case for green addresses individual, population, economic and ecological health.

4. Eyes on the Park

Jane Jacobs, in her hallmark book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, noted the importance of what she called, “Eyes on the Street.” She pointed out that neighborhood safety and vitality depend on a maximum number of people watching over a streetscape. In a well-connected, mixed-use neighborhood, people are present 24/7. Residents and workers in the neighborhood are moving in and out so that someone is always present. Jacobs observed this feature as a hallmark of a thriving street, public space or park. Subsequent research confirms that the observation of public space enables a level of safety and security that has both health and well-being impacts for the observer and the observed. Parks are especially sensitive to supervision and the proximity of residents, the presence of mixed-use, easy access through a well-connected network, and the presence of trees are all linked to higher levels of activity and social support. Providing close proximity of active uses and easy visual and physical access can ensure sufficient numbers of Eyes on the Park, as well as enhancing both physical activity and social interaction. 

5. Mobility

Finally, mobility enables people to reach places through multiple modes of travel — walking, biking and various forms of private and public transit. Sidewalks and streets can occupy more than one-third of the land of a city. Adding surface parking lots, that figure can range to as much as two-thirds of the ground plane. Understanding the importance of these aspects of mobility as part of the park system is foundational to developing the connectivity necessary for a dynamic park system. 

Parks that can be reached on foot by the first circle of users provide important neighborhood destinations and participate in a park infrastructure that connects parks, greenways and blueways across a region through trails, sidewalks, streets and rails. Kardys points out that “complete streets with generous sidewalks, which connect to convenient transit access points, are the essential ingredients of a truly accessible system of parks and open spaces.” 

Kardys also notes that “a multimodal approach to connectivity ensures that access is equitable, allowing the largest number of residents to enjoy great public spaces and experience a green and safe journey to reach them.” This comprehensive and inclusive approach to mobility also enables people with various levels of personal mobility to enjoy parks. Making parks welcoming for users with supportive appliances provides opportunities for social interaction and physical activity in a safe space that builds skill and enhances well-being. 

This five-point checklist:

    (1) Mixed-Use 

    (2) Connectivity

    (3) Greenness

    (4) Eyes on the Park

    (5) Mobility

provides a framework for assessing the potential for parks to contribute to community and individual health. Other aspects of resilience and hazard mitigation add to the ecological health profile, and there are clearly many other aspects of park design. The key contributors to health, however, are embedded in this checklist and, to the extent that park and park system design provides and enhances these elements, the closer parks move toward a healthy community design strategy.

While the specifics of how each park provides these elements are unique to its context and location, a fully connected park system begins at the doorstep of each resident and serves as an infrastructure that supports health and well-being. Parks provide the places where many of life’s most profound experiences are celebrated — designing parks as linked elements within a parks infrastructure can transform our suburbs, towns and cities so that these beloved places are also our partners in health. 


Joanna Lombard, AIA, LEED, AP, is a Professor at the University of Miami School of Architecture and the Department of Public Health Sciences, Miller School of Medicine.