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The Health Benefits of Parks and Their Economic Impacts: A Review of the Literature report is the first of a series of resources resulting from a collaboration between NRPA and the Urban Institute that highlight a health-based case for parks, with a focus on the resulting economic value. In mid-December, NRPA and Urban Institute released the next resource: A Framework for Assessing Equitable Health Outcomes of Parks. The comprehensive report demonstrates how public data establishes the ways parks promote greater well-being across four domains of health: physical, mental, social and environmental. The framework also provides guidance on how to communicate the economic value resulting from these benefits (e.g., lower healthcare and insurance costs, increased productivity due to fewer sick days).
The framework provides five steps for assessing the health impacts of parks and their economic impacts:
Step 1: Identify park characteristics.
Parks vary greatly, reflecting the unique needs and desires of the populations they serve. Perhaps they are where community members walk for improved well-being, or are a place to host a festival or family cookout. Two key factors to consider are accessibility (including the quantity and quality of transportation routes to/from the park) and the size and amenities provided at the park.
Step 2: Examine who has access.
Research shows that park equity remains a challenge in communities across the United States, including 100 million people who do not reside within a 10-minute walk of a single park and recreation amenity. Inequitable access perpetuates the uneven distribution of the health and wellness benefits from parks. The report considers questions to frame how a park system serves the community and if there are gaps in design or programming:
- How do different people get to parks, and how do they do so?
- How do different people use and benefit from parks?
- How do underlying health issues that parks can help address vary across people and population groups? Are the outcomes mirrored in subpopulations?
Step 3: Select and measure health outcomes.
The framework addresses health outcomes for four dimensions of health:
- Physical health (including increased physical activity and improved physical health outcomes)
- Mental health (including increased sense of well-being and decreased use of mental health services)
- Social health (including increased community attachment and increased public safety)
- Environmental health (including increased climate resiliency and improved environmental quality)
For each outcome, the framework provides a definition, key metrics, what the data may show about parks’ contributions, a data snapshot and examples of the metrics in use.
Step 4: Estimate economic benefits.
The framework provides examples of economic measures developed for a variety of studies. It is critical to pay attention to who receives these benefits, and how, as they can inform best opportunities for future park investments.
Step 5: Drive equity through action steps.
The final step of the framework highlights how to use this information to drive greater park and health equity. Among the key actions:
- Identify the disparities in how people access your park system and champion efforts to combat inequities.
- Forge data-sharing agreements with your local hospitals and healthcare organizations.
- Liaise with your local hospitals and healthcare organizations as they conduct their community health needs assessment.
- Learn and share local histories to elevate more intentional and comprehensive community priorities.
- Keep informed of health equity measures, data and assessments.
Using the framework helps demonstrate the health contributions of park systems quantitatively and qualitatively. The next step in the NRPA/Urban Institute collaboration is to build resources that make this framework accessible to park and recreation professionals and advocates. We will have more to share on those efforts later this year.
Kevin Roth is Vice President of Research, Evaluation and Technology at NRPA.