We’ve written before about the need for urban parks to do more for public health. A new report by the Center for City Park Excellence, From Fitness Zones to the Medical Mile: How Urban Park Systems Can Best Promote Health and Wellness, looks at how individual parks and entire city park systems help people be healthier and more fit. The report details more than 75 innovative features and programs, including 14 case studies, that maximize a park’s ability to promote physical activity and improve mental health.
Today’s post, a reprint of an op-ed that appeared in yesterday’s The Philadelphia Daily News, serves as an overview of that report. We will highlight specific best practices in a series of future posts.
When it comes to health and fitness, the U.S. is in crisis.
Forty-nine percent of Americans get less than the minimum recommended amount of physical activity, and 36 percent of U.S. adults engage in no leisure-time physical activity at all. These people are not all obese, of course, but lack of exercise is certainly a risk factor for being overweight, and we are the most overweight nation on earth. On average, an obese American racks up nearly $1,500 more a year in health-care costs than one of normal weight, for a national total of $147 billion in direct medical expenses.
It’s well-established that physical activity helps prevent obesity and related medical problems. And there’s mounting evidence that providing places for urbanites to exercise (parks, primarily) can improve health.
But the mere presence of a park doesn’t guarantee a healthier population. Thousands of acres of city parks are not, for one reason or another, serving the purpose of helping people become healthier. With a growing clamor from doctors, parents, overweight people and even those who just want to strengthen muscles, lungs, and hearts, it’s time for parks to be more than just pretty places. Individual parks, and entire city park systems, should be designed and programmed to help people be more fit.
The overriding principle for a park system to foster mental and physical well-being is that it must be well-used by the public. But many parks don’t make it easy to exercise. Some are too small, some too big and confusing, some too far away, some too frightening, or too unattractive and unimaginative. Some are mainly athletic complexes for special users – baseball, soccer or tennis players as far as the eye can see. Others are primarily natural areas with occasional trails, too boring for many competitive people.
In the starkest terms, most parks simply don’t offer enough choices for activity. The more facilities and spaces layered onto a park, the more use it can get from people with different interests and skills. A golf course can serve a couple of hundred people a day; add a running track around it and it can serve thousands. (The one encircling Memorial Park Golf Course in Houston hosts 10,000 runners a day and is said to be the most heavily used exercise trail in the country.)
A playground is a nice spot for kids to practice motor skills, but adding a fitness zone of adult exercise equipment lets grown-ups get into shape while watching the kids. A softball field is a great place for 18 players, while unstructured space nearby means twosomes and threesomes can kick a ball, toss a Frisbee, play catch, throw sticks to a dog, and much more. Forests are wonderful sanctuaries for wildlife and the occasional intrepid bushwhacker; woods with manicured trails, an occasional bench and grassy openings can attract many more users.
Even if parks didn’t provide all the urban benefits they are known for – improving the environment, attracting tourists, building community, enhancing property values – they’d still be critically important because of their potential contribution to public health and wellness. But platitudes about healthy parks aren’t enough. If park agencies are to truly justify all the land and tax money they use, they must actually serve their health functions as powerfully as do doctors, hospitals and health agencies.
In the mid-19th century, Frederick Law Olmsted and others called for the creation of parks as refuges from the unhealthful air and stresses of urban life. Today’s urban air quality may be improved, but Americans have found other ways to put their bodies and spirits in jeopardy. Parks continue to be among the best places to offer solace and solutions to public-health problems.