Investing in Health Through Parks and Recreation

May 23, 2024, Department, by Austin Barrett, Ph.D., CPRP

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Parks and recreation increasingly is seen as an essential component of the healthcare system. For readers of Parks & Recreation magazine, this connection is no surprise. But how widely is that perception held among the broader population?

The Perception

One answer comes from a 2017 research paper. Using a statewide survey of 2,240 responses, researchers in Pennsylvania found that 73 percent of residents agreed with the statement, “Parks, trails and open space are an essential component of our healthcare system.” Sixty-eight percent agreed with the same statement in a separate survey conducted with 243 patients in a Pennsylvania primary care clinic. These views were shared across different demographic categories; the researchers found no difference in level of agreement based on age, race and income. Only minor differences in agreement were identified based on gender (females agreed at a higher rate than males) and education (college degree holders agreed at a higher rate than non-college degree holders). The results indicate a recognition among the public that parks, trails and open spaces have a place at the health promotion table.

The Evidence

Using nationwide data, two research studies tested the relationship between county-level spending on park and recreation operations and specific health outcomes.

The first study examined how operational spending on parks and recreation related to mortality in the United States. They wanted to know: Does an increase in spending on local parks and recreation relate to a decrease in mortality rate? Yes, it does — increased county-area spending on parks and recreation was associated with a decrease in overall mortality from 1980 to 2010.

A second study examined the relationship between local government spending on parks and recreation and how people describe their own health (such as excellent, very good, good, fair or poor). Researchers analyzed a nationwide public dataset of more than 300,000 responses to see if increased spending on parks and recreation was associated with a decreased number of people rating their health as “poor.” The answer: Yes, again! Higher levels of county-area park and recreation spending was associated with lower likelihood of participants describing their health as “poor.” The analyses also included other local government spending on traditional healthcare categories, such as health, welfare and hospitals, to avoid bias. Further, out of all included government spending variables, parks and recreation was the only variable associated with better self-rated health.

Finally, the Community Preventive Services Task Force recently released a finding showing how health-related economic benefits exceed the cost for park, trail and greenway infrastructure. The systematic review, that soon will be published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, identified seven research studies that quantified the economic value of a park, trail and other greenway infrastructure development. The review found that every dollar spent on these projects led to $3.10 worth of health-related benefits. NRPA will share more information about this article upon publication.

Data Talks

NRPA also provides ways to measure the impact of parks and recreation on health. Check out the Annual Health Care Cost Benefit of Equitable Access to Parks calculator to see the amount of annual healthcare savings in your city when all residents have nearby access to parks.

Understanding and communicating some of these findings will help make the case for continued support for and investment in local park and recreation services. Data are crucial for communicating benefits to local decision-makers. It’s time to amplify the message that an investment in local park and recreation services is an investment in local health and well-being.

For more research-informed statements on the multitude of benefits provided by parks and recreation, visit NRPA’s Parks and Recreation Is Essential webpage.

Austin Barrett (he/him), Ph.D., CPRP, is Senior Evaluation Manager at NRPA.