Did you know that parks, trails and playgrounds are three of the top five most important community amenities requested by people seeking or building new homes? This is according to the National Association of Realtors and National Association of Home Builders. Studies show that there is a link between the built environment and the physical, social and economic health of a community. For the last half-century, we have been developing vehicle-dependent environments that foster obesity, poor health, social isolation and high infrastructure costs. Planning for park and recreation facilities can promote active lifestyles, build healthy communities and lower healthcare costs. Therefore, we would like to take time to discuss what we call “HEEPS” (Health, Environment, Economic, Psychological and Social) of benefits that are great promotional pieces for health and park and recreation agencies.
NRPA highlights the contribution of public parks to the physical activity and health of community residents — almost 100 percent of parks provide an outlet for physical activity to occur. Also, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) suggests that people exercise more when they have access to parks. Some of the overall benefits of physical activity are reduction of the risk of heart disease, hypertension, colon cancer and diabetes. Further, the benefits of physical activity are multiplied when one considers that the cost of medical care is up to 40 percent higher for an obese patient versus someone of a healthy weight.
And, health benefits are not limited to increases in physical activity made easy due to proximity of parks and trails. The American Planning Association’s (APA) briefing, “How cities use parks to…Improve Public Health,” includes references to studies showing that exposure to nature results in lowered blood pressure and cholesterol levels, enhanced survival after a heart attack, more rapid recovery from surgery and fewer minor medical complaints.
Did you know that during the course of 50 years one tree generates $31,250 worth of oxygen and $62,000 of pollution control, recycles $37,500 worth of water and controls $31,250 worth of soil erosion? This is all according to the U.S. Forest Service, which also says people recover from illnesses or injuries more quickly when they have a view of trees and nature from their windows. Even the American Public Works Association (APWA), which often cites drawbacks of the natural environment, recognizes the benefits of trees, noting that they multiply with tree size, because larger trees support more leaf surface area than smaller trees.
Professor and author C. Donald Ahrens in 2006 discussed the value of parks and open space in reducing the effects of urban “heat islands.” Heat islands are created by excessive amounts of paved surfaces, buildings and population density. These result in temperatures averaging 2-10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal temps. The consequences include costlier air conditioning bills, increased pollution and higher mortality rates. Remember the often-negative APWA? The association recognizes that in hot, arid climates, increasing street shade by 20 percent increases the pavement condition index and extends the resurfacing cycle from every six to 13 years, reducing street maintenance costs by 50 percent.
TPL also lists environmental benefits related to stormwater runoff, which presents significant issues in communities where impervious surfaces, such as roads, sidewalks, parking lots and rooftops, prevent water from soaking into the ground. The American Forests Resource Center considers trees, and likely undeveloped park spaces, a “less expensive stormwater management system.” And stormwater that is slowed naturally before entering a stream is likely to contain fewer pollutants.
Perhaps you are seeking park and recreation benefits beyond those related to the environment and health? Surely, money is something to grab the attention. Studies show that well-planned park and recreation systems can serve as a catalyst for economic development. How? Access to parks can increase property values, stimulate the creation of jobs at the seasonal, part-time and full-time levels and provide a foundation for place-based economic development. According to NRPA and the APA, parks actually attract consumers to downtown regions, spur the opening of concessionaires and local restaurants, and increase tourism. Official measurements of the economic impact that parks have can be difficult to calculate. However, TPL has developed a guide for measuring the economic value of a city park system that measures property value, direct use, health, community cohesion, clean water, clean air and tourism. NRPA’s recent report, The Economic Impact of Local Parks, also aims to quantify the significant benefits offered by a robust park and recreation system.
And, what do we know about the next generation? They choose the community in which they want to live before they start looking for a job. Millennials are interested in communities that are rich with amenities — and what amenities are often at the heart of quality-of-life? You guessed it — parks, recreation and trails. Communities desiring to maintain relevance to the next generation of workers need to have high-quality park systems to bring these college grads home, or to encourage more to call them home. Author, researcher and park champion John Crompton finds the same to be true for what he calls GRAMPIES, the Growing number of Retired, Active, Monied People in Excellent Shape. And this group, different from the Millennials, consists of positive taxpayers, generating more in taxes for the municipality than they cost to the city.
So, while the above benefits affect us all, psychological health is really about the individual and not a community health issue, right? Wrong. A study conducted in 2014 and reported in the Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics found that mental health is significantly related to residential distance from parks. This research has resulted in a shift in attention to the built environment as a key determinant of health for both physical and mental population health. Psychology Today asks the question, “Do Parks Make People Happier?” A longitudinal study conducted in Great Britain over a period of 18 years found that living near parks does affect people’s mental health, even when controlling for marriage and employment variables.
According to NRPA’s ongoing analyses of social equity and parks, public parks help provide equal access to nature and green spaces for all citizens regardless of gender, socioeconomic status, ability, ethnicity or age. Park and recreation agencies can foster community “buy-in” or pride, bring people together and connect them to each other and to nature. Community pride is often linked to the creation of more stable neighborhoods.
Additionally, TPL links parks and recreation to reductions in crime, including reducing juvenile delinquency. Studies show that students involved in recreational activities are less likely to miss school, more likely to graduate and go on to college, and score roughly 10 percent higher than youth not engaged in recreational programs.
According to NRPA, successful parks have four key qualities. They are (1) accessible, (2) allow people to engage in activities, (3) comfortable, and (4) sociable places. It is critically important that we start looking at these qualities as mechanisms to house our HEEPS of benefits and start spreading the word about how parks offer much more value than just a place to sit.
Tyler Tapps, Ph.D., CPRP, is an Assistant Professor and Graduate Coordinator at Northwest Missouri State University.Janet Bartnik, M.S., CPRP, is the Director at Liberty Parks and Recreation in Missouri.