|Parks Are Part of Our Healthcare System|
“Parks are a part of our healthcare system,” said Dr. Daphne Miller, a professor of family and community medicine, University of California, San Francisco, at the Greater & Greener: Reimagining Parks for 21st Century Cities, a conference in New York City. She said these green spaces are crucial to solving hypertension, anxiety, depression, diabetes — “the diseases of indoor living.” The more someone spends outdoors, the less likely they are to suffer from mental or physical disorders. But she said parks officials and the medical profession still needs more data to take aim at the many “naysayers on the either side” who don’t believe in what every landscape architect values.
Lucky for all of us, a few scientists are doing innovative research, trying to capture that data for us all. In a separate panel on healthcare and parks, Dr. Deborah Cohen, senior natural scientist at RAND, and Sarah Messiah, a research professor at the University of Miami presented some exciting results.
In a National Institute of Health (NIH)-financed study, Cohen has used “systematic observations” measuring “play in communities” to determine if and how people burn calories in parks (see downloadable app). Every hour 3 or 4 days of the week, her team of researchers visited and counted people in target areas. Cohen was particularly interested in “vigorous” physical activity — the healthy kind of activity needed to get hearts pumping. Vigorous activity is defined as brisk walking, jogging, or running.
She said some 50 percent of all vigorous activity occurs in parks. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean all that much for most because “hardly anyone engages in vigorous activity anymore.” For boys, the average is 2 minutes a day, and girls — just 1 minute a day. She found that while parks are the sites of that rare vigorous activity, they are still “underutilized.”
To measure the impact of new parks on the activity levels of people using these facilities, Cohen did a before and after study. She examined the activity levels of residents before three pocket parks came in in low-income, high-crime areas in Los Angeles and then after. These are tiny parks (less than half an acre), mainly playgrounds, which aren’t staffed. She found that for two of the new parks, “the parks were better used than the larger parks serving larger areas.” People were “more likely to walk to the smaller neighborhood parks, which were perceived to be “safer than the larger neighborhood park.” Walking gets the heart pumping.