Parks & Greenspace

Credit: Picture BC

Providing parks and greenspace are not only ways to beautify communities and make life more pleasant, but such spaces also play a central role in human health and well-being. Mounting evidence now tells us that trees, parks, and natural elements play an essential role in a healthy human habitat.1

Healthy by Nature is a movement about the physical and mental health benefits of spending time in nature, and its principles suggest that:

  • spending time in nature improves human health
  • human health depends on healthy ecosystems
  • parks and protected areas contribute to vibrant, healthy communities2

Examples of public greenspace include municipal parks, provincial, and national parks, Crown land and ecological reserves, and public facilities (e.g. school grounds, playing fields). Privately owned greenspace also plays a valuable role in communities, and includes working and productive landscapes (agriculture and forests), golf courses, open space holdings in subdivisions, and rail and utility corridors.

What is this issue about?

Supporting healthy choices

People tend to be physically active when it is convenient and affordable. This is why public health supports building community environments that make it easy, attractive, safe, and affordable for residents to be active in their daily lives. Parks and natural areas are part of this focus,3 as well as active transportation networks that help people get to destinations in the community through active movement.

Alleviating health inequities

Parks provide the venues for commonly enjoyed activities – organized sports, running, biking, gardening, hiking, swimming, and many others. Research shows that when the physical health of individuals with similar socio­-economic status are compared, those individuals with better access to nature are healthier.4 We also know that convenient access to parks and greenspace particularly benefits people with lower incomes. They typically have poorer health status due to socio-economic factors, and are limited by time and money to go to the gym or participate in recreation programs.

Building awareness

In the last decade, studies about the health impacts of greenspace and parks are becoming more rigorous. New evidence about health and natural environments is informing decisions on policy, investments, and programs.5

Why are parks and greenspace important for health and well-being?

Physical health, healing, and development

Visiting a park, or even seeing nature from a window, bring benefits to physical health, healing, and human development.

  • People who live close to parks use them for physical activity. Studies find that people who live within 800 metres of a park get 50% of their vigorous physical activity while at the park. People who live just 800m further away get just 16% of their physical activity while at the park.6
  • Physical benefits can also be derived simply from viewing nature. Patients in hospital rooms with a view of nature generally recover more quickly, require less pain medication, and have fewer post-surgical complications than patients in rooms with urban views.7
  • Natural spaces help children to build their gross motor skills, interact socially, alleviate adverse effects of exposure to chronic stress,8 and reduce rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease.

Mental health

Being in nature improves mental health and decreases anxiety and stress.

  • Access to natural environments can improve cognitive functioning, impulse control, resilience to stressful life events, and overall mental health. Conversely, lack of access to natural environments increases deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), clinical depression, stress, and anxiety.9
  • Children with ADHD particularly benefit from access to greenery: a 20-minute walk in an urban park benefited the concentration performance of children with ADHD at least as much as prescribed ADHD medications.10

Social function

Parks and green spaces are places to connect with other people in the community, and improve social well-being.

  • Studies show that people who connect with nature feel less isolated and less focused on themselves. They form connections with neighbors, and aggression and crime decrease.11
  • Community gardens are shown not only to facilitate access to healthy food, but also to improve mental health by reducing stress and building networks that span generations and cultures.12
  • Common spaces in social housing projects are used more when they have trees and grass, and the people living adjacent to green spaces know more of their neighbours, report a stronger feeling of belonging, and are more supportive of each other.13

Ecosystem health

Parks and green spaces can provide a habitat for wildlife, as well as support ecosystem functions such as air and water purification, and flood protection.

  • Green spaces can support and preserve ecological functions, including healthy air and water.
  • By absorbing rain and snow, green infrastructure recharges aquifers and releases stored water into watercourses. Green infrastructure filters pollutants and sediments out of surface water, buffers developed areas from flooding, and prevents soil erosion.14

Why do parks and greenspace matter for local governments?

Most people agree that parks and greenspace contribute to sustainability, identity, and the spirit of a place. However, parks and greenspace also have economic value. Parks measurably improve the property values of nearby homes, boost tourism,15 and play a key role in attracting residents – particularly workers that build a diverse local economy.16 In addition, parks and greenspace deliver environmental health value as carbon sinks, biodiversity, and habitat.17 Moreover, managing rainwater infiltration and stormwater with green infrastructure (e.g. swales, permeable landscapes) can be more effective and less costly than traditional hard infrastructure (e.g. pipes in the ground).18

Take Action

Policy and Planning

Develop policies on acquiring park land, retaining natural areas, and the distribution of parks and natural areas in the community. Such policies can become part of official community plans and parks and recreation master plans.

Conservation subdivision guidelines design residential development in a way that preserves open space and natural areas. Islands Trust review of conservation subdivision is a regulatory review of these principles.

Include health objectives and rationale in parks and greenspace policies.

Campbell River's Sustainable Official Community Plan includes a goal for residents to be within a five-minute walk from a park, trail, or natural area.

Limit or prohibit the use of pesticides in parks and greenspace.

The City of Nanaimo has a bylaw and education campaign adopted in 2010 that prohibits the use of pesticides for aesthetic reasons on public and private land.

Develop and retrofit parks and greenspace to be accessible and inclusive.

Cariboo Regional District's Accessible Trails initiative reviewed the trails inventory, and developed pilot trails for accessible design.

Develop or review guidelines for greenspace and play space in multi-family developments (apartments, townhouses) for family-friendly design.

City of Vancouver's (former) High-Density Housing For Families with Children Guidelines address key issues of site, building, and unit design that relate to residential livability for families with children.

Initiate or contribute to multi-agency regional parks and open space planning, and integrate health into inventory and needs analysis.

The Sea-to-Sky Greenbelt initiative aimed to identify, connect, and protect natural areas and green spaces.

Processes

Target the needs of specific populations and involve them in the parks planning process.

The City of Surrey’s Child and Youth Friendly City Strategy engaged youth in a parks planning process.

Upgrade capacity and knowledge about playground design and safety.

Courses are offered through BCRPA for basic safety awareness or full certification. http://www.bcrpa.bc.ca/recreation_parks/parks/playground_safety.htm

Invite or commission a health impact assessment to receive health recommendations on proposed scenarios for park space (e.g. new development area or redevelopment area).

San Francisco Department of Public Health provides guidance, training, and tools on human impact assessments: http://www.humanimpact.org/new-to-hia

Create a task force or group to lead planning of parks and natural areas with diverse representation and input.

See the Squamish's Smoke Bluffs Park Committee's for example terms of reference

Partnerships and Programs

Develop or maintain community policies and programs to reduce user fees for parks and outdoors programs for people with limited incomes.

The Everybody Gets to Play program is implemented in various communities and regions. See Okanagan’s program.

Maximize use of parks and greenspace in neighbourhood school sites by adopting shared-use agreements for public use of school grounds.

A Joint Use Agreement Guide was created by BCRPA and the Ministry of Education http://www.bcrpa.bc.ca/recreation_parks/facilities/network.htm

Evergreen created a series of guides about naturalized areas and healthy landscapes at school facilities.

Maximize the recreational use of utility corridors.

BC Hydro created Partners in Use: Right of Way Guidelines for Compatible Uses for compatible recreation use for utility corridors.

Partner to develop and support working greenspaces, such as urban forestry initiatives and farmland access agreements.

American Planning Association’s Urban Forestry Initiative podcast (and report available for purchase) https://www.planning.org/research/forestry/report.htm

A Guide to Farmland Access Agreements by Farm Folk City folk explains different types of farmland access agreements and provides samples.

City of Kelowna's NeighbourWoods program encourages tree planting by residents.

Build relationships with conservation organizations that preserve and protect land for habitat and biodiversity values.

The Nature Conservancy of BC protects natural spaces, and manages and restores them.          

Links