As the health benefits of parks have been brought to the fore this past year, it has opened necessary conversations about inequities in access to parks and the benefits they can offer.
The impacts parks can have on our health are extensive—spanning both chronic and infectious diseases, and preventative and restorative benefits. For our physical health, parks can help to address cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and even reduce mortality. Parks can boost mental health, too, by helping to alleviate depression and anxiety, reduce stress, improve memory, attention and cognition, and more.
But when it comes to realizing these benefits, not all parks are created equal. Simply having a park within walking distance does not guarantee a person or community will be healthier. Research shows that the quality of natural spaces, function of amenities, and even the shape of parks can influence health outcomes.
Expanding our understanding of the factors that shape the health impact of parks can help us move toward a holistic approach to planning parks for public health that ensures their many benefits reach all communities.
In our survey of nearly 3,500 Canadians, only 9% cited a lack of parks nearby as a barrier to park use. Instead, the top three barriers identified were a lack of amenities (37%), a lack of plantings and natural spaces (31%), and inadequate maintenance (22%).
These results highlight that proximity is only one part of what makes parks usable—yet many cities rely on distance or area-based metrics to measure and set targets for access to parks.
One approach that deepens the criteria for evaluating park access is Vancouver’s Restorative Natural Area Index . A proposed tool for mapping green spaces based on their ability to deliver restorative well-being benefits, the index quantifies the quality of parks through the lens of mental health.
Developed by Jo Fitzgibbons in partnership with Park Board staff, the tool includes a scoring system for evaluating the restorative function of spaces: points are added for features that support “soft fascination” (defined as “tranquil moments of passive, curious attention”) like meadows and pollinator gardens, and deducted for built infrastructure like washrooms and picnic tables.
Through the public engagement process that informed the Restorative Natural Area Index, listening to the types of natural experiences Vancouverites seek out revealed a tension between perceptions of “nature” and “access”, said Katherine Howard, formerly with the Vancouver Park Board. While some might envision nature as a muddy trail through a forest, Howard noted, people with limited mobility might need paved pathways to be able to enter parks at all.
It’s all about balance, said Howard, noting that amenities that increase access—like washrooms, drinking fountains, and paved paths—are important in all parks, even when trying to keep the space natural.
Dr. Melissa Lem, director of the BC Parks Foundation’s park prescriptions program agreed, pointing out that while built features like picnic tables might be seen by some to detract from the “natural environment” of the space, having these amenities in place might be the only way some people are able to use parks. For example, families from cultural backgrounds where food-sharing is an important part of park use.
Research confirms that there is “no trade-off” between nature and amenities when it comes to the restorative benefits of parks, but rather “higher quality parks have a function for both amenity and biodiversity.”
Several other municipalities have incorporated tools for balancing the human-nature continuum.
Halifax’s Green Network Plan features a “parks spectrum”, with a “people focus” on one end and a “nature focus” at the other, while Saskatoon’s Green Strategy takes a holistic look at how “natural”, “enhanced,” and “engineered” assets combine to form the city’s green infrastructure network. These examples highlight growing recognition that simply setting area or distance-based targets for parks, as many cities do through their parkland provision goals, is not enough on its own.
Dr. Melissa Lem of the BC Parks Foundation pointed out that conversations about the health benefits of parks are often human-centric, neglecting the importance of broader planetary health for humans and non-humans alike. “I think we have to get away from the idea that humans are existing in a silo—we are extremely dependent on the air we breathe, the water we drink, the wild spaces we interact with for our health,” she said, “the two are inextricably linked.”
Research from our 2020 Canadian City Parks Report, for example, explored how biodiversity boosts mental health. In a pandemic context, a recent study found that urban vegetation helps slow the spread of COVID-19, with a 1% increase in vegetation associated with a 2.6% decrease in cumulative COVID-19 cases, highlighting how human and environmental health go hand-in-hand.
One of the under-recognized benefits of parks, Dr. Lem noted, is that connecting with nature promotes pro-environmental behaviours. Research shows that higher levels of “neighbourhood nature” are associated with greater care for the environment—whether through recycling or volunteering for an environmental organization. This can contribute to a positive feedback loop where people who have access to green spaces become more inclined to steward and advocate for them, generating a cycle of health promotion that benefits both humans and non-humans.
While well cared for spaces can contribute to well-being, the opposite is also true, pointed out Chúk Odenigbo, Director of Ancestral Services at Future Ancestors and PhD Candidate in medical geography. “If you go to your favourite park, the park that holds so many dear memories to you… and you see people disrespecting it and littering … that negative feedback loop hits you just as hard where you get stressed, you get angry, you get all these negative emotions,” Odenigbo said.
This is affirmed in research that shows maintenance matters when it comes to health. As one study puts it, people’s ability to derive well-being benefits from parks is shaped by “the magic of the mundane”—the way parks are cared for and maintained—and when that care is lacking, the impact can be negative.
Indeed, the assumption that the health benefits of parks are universally experienced is a “pet peeve” for Odenigbo. “We have to add nuance, because nature is also dangerous—nature will kill you,” Odenigbo said, noting that many of the hazards of nature are caused by humans. For example, seasonal allergies, which can cause people severe discomfort or respiratory issues in parks, are exacerbated by climate change.
Some cities are highlighting how to mitigate these issues through a twin focus on human and environmental health, as Victoria has done through developing pollinator and allergy-friendly planting guidelines for parks.
To maximize the health benefits of parks, variety is key, Katherine Howard argued. “Fields and places that make us feel like we want to be active and join a sports team are just as valuable in a different way to places where we go and restore and see fish,” Howard said. “They all have different roles in our lives and have different impacts on our health and well-being.”
The importance of supporting different functions was highlighted during COVID-19, when people took a broader range of “indoor” activities, like dining and exercising, outdoors to the park. A recent study of park use during the pandemic shows that having flexible or unstructured spaces that can be adapted to different uses, allowing for “tactical urbanism,” are especially important in times of crisis to meet emerging needs.
Currently, however, there can be disparities in which neighbourhoods have access to parks equipped with amenities to support diverse recreational functions. A Montreal study, for example, found that wealthier neighbourhoods not only had better access to green space, but within those spaces, were more likely to have amenities to promote physical activity—like sports equipment and walking trails. These disparities matter, as research confirms that having such amenities present makes people more likely to use parks for exercise.
Our survey showed that demand for these amenities continues to rise, with 90% of cities reporting increased demand for multi-use trails, 55% for outdoor fitness equipment, and 53% for sports fields. It will be important for cities to apply an equity lens to determine which parks would most benefit from these upgrades.
Layering exposure to nature at different scales can help to maximize health impacts, said Dr. Lem. “If you want the most bang for your nature buck, 20 to 30 minutes is when you're getting the most rapid cortisol drop, but really there is evidence showing that just five minutes can start to significantly improve mental health. So those little micro-doses of nature can be important,” said Dr. Lem.
This has implications for green space design. For example, recent research by a UBC urban forestry professor recommends following the 3-30-300 framework: 3 trees within view of everyone’s home, 30% tree canopy cover in every neighbourhood, and 300m to the nearest green space. Highlighting the importance of “micro-doses,” a Toronto-based study found that adding just 10 trees to a city block boosts health perceptions in a way equivalent to boosting individual income by $10,000.
Park shape, too, plays a role in health outcomes. More complex shapes are associated with greater health benefits and reduced mortality, potentially due to the variety of access points their irregular geometry provides. Additionally, incorporating curves into park-based infrastructure has been shown to mimic nature and have a soothing effect.
Within parks, the layout of built and natural features can help support health. Strategically arranging trees, vegetation, and amenities can minimize park-goers’ exposure to traffic-related air pollution and boost health benefits by directing human activity to certain locations within a park, one study found.
Taken together, all of these factors provide a framework for deepening considerations of the physical environment when planning parks for public health. However, the social environment is equally important to realizing the health benefits of parks—a topic we explore in the next story.