Study Shows How City Parks Can Help Improve Health

March 16, 2011

American cities can take a variety of steps to make their city parks more attractive to local residents, and those actions could help people be healthier, according to a report released today by The Trust For Public Land (TPL).

Americans need more exercise and they can use city parks for that purpose, the study says. 

"City parks can play a big role in helping us be healthier, and our research has found dozens of good programs and park designs, stretching from Boston to San Francisco," said Will Rogers, President of TPL, which is the only national conservation organization working to create and improve parks in cities across the country.

Rogers also noted that President Obama's recent initiative, America's Great Outdoors, calls for more parks and outdoor spaces for people who live in cities. "That report shows that we need to provide more ways for people who live in cities to get outside," said Rogers.

The report, From Fitness Zones to the Medical Mile: How Urban Park Systems Can Best Promote Health and Wellness, details more than 75 innovative features and programs which make maximum use of a park's ability to promote physical activity and improve mental health.

It documents the major factors that stimulate public use of city parks, including: lots of structured programming of sports and exercise; reducing automobile traffic in parks to promote running, walking, cycling and skating; better signs; designing parks to make them more useful to people on a daily basis; and better partnerships between park agencies and medical offices.

"Unfortunately, the mere presence of a park does not guarantee a healthier population," said Peter Harnik, director of TPL's Center for City Park Excellence and co-author of the study. "There are thousands of acres of city parks which aren't serving the important purpose of helping people lead healthier lives. Many city parks need to do more."

The new report recommends both physical changes and new programs to help local residents use their parks, and thus be healthier. It also includes 14 case studies, among them:

Los Angeles - Fitness zones are easy-to-use, accessible outdoor gyms that only need a gravity-and-resistance weight system. They require no electricity and promote health by requiring people to use their own body weight for exercising different muscles.

San Francisco - Closure of John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park on Sundays caused use of the park to more than double, compared to Saturdays. The road is the main thoroughfare through the park.

Little Rock, Arkansas - The Medical Mile provides a chance for people to run, skate, walk and ride their bicycles while at the same time providing information about wellness.

The report found that health-enhancing park programs are just as important as a park's physical design. Some good examples in cities include:

Cincinnati - The Recreation Commission's programs attracted more than 3.2 million participant-visits in 2009, 22 percent of which were by young people. The hundreds of programs include league sports and separate programs for youth, seniors, and people with disabilities.

Milwaukee - By partnering with the Urban Ecology Center, the Milwaukee County Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture is showcasing environmental education to 15,000 students and teachers from 45 schools.

New York City - The Department of Parks and Recreation partners with the city's Health Department on a "Shape Up, New York" fitness initiative that encourages healthy lifestyles and improves self-esteem through exercise.

"Parks play a number of roles in cities, including improving the environment, attracting tourists, creating a sense of place, building community and enhancing property values, but one of their most important roles is the ability to improve public health and wellness." said Harnik. "Park agencies can help people in cities be healthy, just like hospitals and public health agencies."

This report is intended for use by park professionals and advocates, concerned citizens, government leaders, and health officials.

The report was supported through generous grants from the Ittleson Foundation, PlayCore, Inc., Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

TPL's Center for City Park Excellence supports the creation and improvement of city park systems through research, data collection, evaluation, skill building, fundraising, garden and playground construction, and land purchases.