Parks for Health–Land&People

Peter Harnik, the director of The Trust for Public Land's Center for City Park Excellence (CCPE), has been thinking about people and parks for more than three decades. Before joining the organization in 1998, Peter cofounded and served as vice president of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and he is a founder and board member of the City Parks Alliance, which works to increase investment in urban parks. Peter's books include Inside City Parks (Urban Land Institute, 2000) and Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities (Island Press, 2010). Peter sat down with Land&People to discuss the center's most recent report, From Fitness Zones to the Medical Mile: How Urban Park Systems Can Best Promote Health and Wellness.

When we spoke in February, you were just putting on your heavy socks to cycle home from our Washington, D.C., office. Do you cycle all through the winter there?

Yes, unless there's snow or ice. Like so many people these days, I spend my workday sitting at a desk, looking at a computer screen and talking on the phone. I feel much better after stretching my legs and huffing and puffing for 40 minutes each way.

That's a big chunk of time!

Well, yes, but I'm incredibly fortunate. Part of my route is on a trail along the Potomac River, and the rest is down the National Mall, which is one long park. I go past the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Smithsonian museums. Then I get to the U.S. Capitol grounds, which were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Sometimes when I'm riding past a crowd, I overhear a visitor saying how this is the very first time they're in Washington, D.C., and how they had to save up for years to take the trip. And it's my daily commute to work! It's humbling.

Health, exercise, and nutrition are much in the news these days. I am thinking particularly about recent reports on the prevalence of obesity in America, and of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative to promote children's fitness. Lack of exercise is a big problem. As we note in the report, only half of Americans get the recommended amount of exercise, and more than a third of us engage in no leisure-time physical activity at all. Obesity is responsible for $147 billion in medical costs each year in this country. It's wonderful that the First Lady has chosen this as her highest-visibility cause.

I guess we intuitively believe that parks are part of the solution. Is that what your research bears out?

Yes, but not uniformly. Some parks—in fact, some park systems—do a better job than others. That's what we've been fleshing out—what makes the good ones good? What are the best practices? What should they be striving for? It's not enough to just tell people to go exercise. There are so many variables in the way parks are situated and managed and programmed. Take, for example, just the seemingly small issue of signs. We have several large parks here in Washington with such inadequate signs that many people are afraid to enter them for fear of getting lost. Across the nation, thousands of acres of parks are not helping to make people healthier, for one reason or another.

How did you collect that information? You must have started with a list of park elements you wanted to look at.

As a matter of fact, no. But we had something better—a group of 22 experts in different fields and enough time to really explore ideas together in detail. We locked ourselves in a hotel in Denver for two days and talked about how park systems could promote health. We had authorities in physical health, mental health, trail design, children's recreation, Hispanic culture, African-American culture, women's issues, adult sports, park management, horticulture, marketing, and other fields. We considered trails, sports fields, and playgrounds. We looked at drinking fountains, restrooms, and park signs. We considered ways of getting to and through a park— on foot, by transit, by bike. We thought about the population density around parks—how many people can get to it easily, how many have to drive. We talked a lot about safety, danger, and fear.

What did the group conclude?

The overriding conclusion was that for a park system to foster physical and mental well-being, people have to use it. You may say that's obvious, but actually there's tremendous controversy over this very point, even though it's rarely articulated. Some people think parks should be almost devoid of people—urban wildernesses they're sometimes called. Urban wildernesses may be good for wildlife and natural processes, but many city residents are scared of them, and they serve so few people that they don't do much for public health.

Can't a park system do a bit of everything?

Yes, I think it can, but then it becomes a matter of balance. Since our mission here was to focus on promoting health, park use became important. Next time maybe we'll get a different group of experts to study natural systems and wildlife. But for our purposes the question became: how do you get the largest number of people to use a park system in a way that creates the greatest benefit to public health? We teased out a half-dozen major ways, which include offering a rich mix of activities and programs; improving park design, location, and accessibility; and forging partnerships to improve the health benefits of parks. Then my coauthor Ben Welle and I spent about two years finding scores of park districts where these kinds of solutions have been implemented, and writing up those cases.

Can you give me some examples?

Well, in the title of the report we mention Fitness Zones. These are park-based outdoor gyms where adults can exercise on their own or while keeping an eye on their kids. TPL has helped create more than two dozen of these in Los Angeles, and the idea is spreading to other cities. Then there's Milwaukee's Urban Ecology Center, a pioneering environmental education program that gets kids outdoors while increasing the safety of the park, which encourages other visitation and uses. And in Cincinnati they have one of the most active sports and activities programs in the nation.

It's easy to understand how increasing activities and programming promotes a park system's health benefits. But some things the report highlights—like stress reduction and safety—may be less intuitive for some people. Maybe, but only until you start to think about it. One huge issue in stress reduction is calming or eliminating traffic and cars in parks. More people get out to walk, bike, and skate on park roadways that are closed to cars—we cite San Francisco's Sunday road closure in Golden Gate Park as an example. Portland, Oregon, is taking the concept even further, closing neighborhood streets between parks a few Sundays each summer. People get out and move their bodies on these roads when they are given the opportunity. And making parks feel safer can be huge. For example, we describe Patterson Park in Baltimore. A survey in the early 1990s found that only a little more than half of the people who lived near the park had even visited it. A combination of some park renovation and the introduction of specialized programming by a park friends group turned Patterson Park into a place that feels safe. Now it's a health-promoting resource for the community.

Are a park's location and accessibility important in promoting park use and the health of a city's population?

There are so many things to consider here. First of all, is the park close to where people live? Other things being equal, parks surrounded by dense development are bound to get more use. A good example is Atlanta, where the city has encouraged residential density around Piedmont Park, increasing the number of people who can get to the park by foot or bicycle without driving. The flip side is accessibility. If it's hard to get to—or into—a park, you're less likely to use it. If it's a hassle to get to a park, there are just so many other things available to occupy time—like TV, video games, and playing around on Facebook.

You discuss what you call the "mistaken Victorian sensibility" that parks should be pure nature, kept separate from commercial activity.

Yes. In fact, we know the opposite it true. People like parks that are located near businesses, restaurants, libraries, and other attractions. Think about a business worker, for example, who might go for a brisk walk in a park on her lunch hour and pick up a sandwich on the way back to the office—or eat in the park. Conversely, park users frequently want to get a snack or a meal. That kind of thing can't happen unless the park is conveniently located in relation to businesses, delis, and restaurants—which many aren't. Remember my bike commute to work? Tourists are always stopping me in the morning, before the museums open, begging to know where they can get a cup of coffee. You should see their faces when I regretfully have to tell them the closest coffee shop is about ten blocks away.

One of my favorite examples in the report is Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis.

Yes, it's wonderful. My daughter went to college in Minneapolis, so I had a great excuse to visit and use this linear park. It's a great example of how park location can promote health. It's nearly six miles long on a former railroad bed with its own bike center for storage, rentals, repairs, and sales. Riders and walkers can easily get off and on the greenway to combine trips with shopping and commuting. There's a hotel and a light rail connection along the route. They even built a connector to a former Sears warehouse that was converted to an international food market, restaurant, and crafts center. Here's this wonderful park environment that threads the city and connects to just about anything you need, and you never have to get in your car.

But you say that no park system, on its own, is capable of maximizing the health benefits of its parks—that partnerships are essential.

The longer I study U.S. parks, the more I see how essential friends-of-parks groups are. Partnerships with neighbors, businesses, and nonprofits are key. And not just the private sector but also other municipal departments and agencies can play a very big role. In New York, the park department partners with the health department to run Shape Up New York fitness classes in parks and housing authority facilities. And one of my favorite examples is the "Medical Mile" of the report's title, a section of Little Rock's Arkansas River Trail that is sponsored and supported by doctors at Heart Clinic Arkansas. This stretch of the greenway includes a wellness promenade, a mind-body-spirit entry plaza, and informational exhibits on health topics.

Your report notes that the current interest in using parks to enhance health "closes the circle that dates all the way back to the beginning of the parks movement." How so?

One of the goals of park pioneers like Frederick Law Olmsted was to create a place where people could retreat from the noise, stress, and, in particular, the unhealthy air that characterized 19-century cities. The enemies of health are different now. The air is cleaner, but people lead more sedentary lives. While they still seek a calm place in the city, they also desperately need parks that are located, designed, built, and programmed in a way that allows them to integrate activity and exercise into their daily lives. While parks have many benefits for communities, their ability to promote fitness and health is an especially important one right now. We hope this report gives parks departments and health professionals some ideas on how parks can best fulfill their longstanding role of promoting human health.

William Poole is the editor of  Land&People. The research described in the interview was funded by The Ittleson Foundation; PlayCore, Inc.; The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.