Healthy parks, healthy people – Executive summary

In many disciplines, there have been concerted attempts to understand the human relationship with nature and how humans might benefit from nature in terms of health and wellbeing. Although still in the relatively early stages, research indicates that contrary to popular thinking, humans may be dependent on nature for psychological, emotional, and spiritual needs that are difficult to satisfy by other means. Findings so far demonstrate that access to nature plays a vital role in human health, wellbeing, and development that has not been fully recognised. This review is an examination of a broad cross-section of published literature that relates to the potential and actual health benefits of contact with nature, particularly but not only, in a park context.

City living involves an extraordinary disengagement of humans from the natural environment that is likely to be detrimental to health and wellbeing. Parks may be one of the only means of accessing nature for the majority of people in urban areas, yet most people are unaware of their full range of potential health benefits. Humans have forgotten how much the natural world means to them. Yet, signals abound that the loss of life’s diversity endangers not just the body but also the spirit. It has been reported that modern people are experiencing a spiritual famine and that alcohol, food, and drug addictions are futile attempts to fill the spiritual emptiness that has arisen from loss of contact with nature.

In terms of health, parks and other natural environments have been viewed almost exclusively as venues for leisure and sport. Yet recent research shows that ‘green nature’, such as parks, can reduce crime, foster psychological wellbeing, reduce stress, boost immunity, enhance productivity, and promote healing. In fact, the positive effects on human health, particularly in urban environments, cannot be over-stated. As a result, urban planning should ensure that the communities have adequate access to nature.

Evidence in the literature shows that among other benefits viewing nature is positive for health in terms of recovering from stress, improving concentration and productivity, and improving psychological state, particularly of people in confined circumstances such as prisons and hospitals. Furthermore, wilderness and related studies clearly demonstrate that being in a natural environment affects people positively, particularly in terms of mental health. There are also multiple benefits from brief encounters with nature, or experiencing nature on a smaller scale, such as in urban parks. Surveys have shown that nature is important to people, and the numbers of people seeking nature-based recreation are increasing.


Other studies demonstrate that plants and nearby vegetation can have profound effects on individuals, small groups, or even entire neighbourhoods. Some health benefits of interacting with plants include facilitation of healing in the elderly and mentally disadvantaged, improving mental capacity and productivity of office workers, improving job and life satisfaction of residents, attracting consumers and tourists to shopping districts, and aiding community cohesion and identity.

While the relationship between social capital and health has been the subject of considerable research and reflection, the relationship between social capital and the biophysical environment is only now being explored. It seems likely, however, that human contact with nature through parks may have significant capacity for building social capital. As social and natural capital benefit one another, it could be worthwhile investigating the facilitative role parks play in linking one to the other.

A large body of research demonstrates that contact with companion animals has multiple positive physiological and psychological effects on human health including: decreasing blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol; reducing anxiety and stress and providing protection against stress-related diseases; provision of companionship and kinship; and the opportunity to nurture. All of these factors improve quality of life and enhance health and wellbeing. Parks and other natural environments such as beaches are important in providing a setting for pet-owners to interact both with their pet and with other pet-owners and parks users, which can positively influence the social aspects of health. In addition, parks are essential in the preservation of habitat for native wildlife, as well as providing people with the opportunity to observe or encounter animals in their natural environment.

Parks and other natural environments are a fundamental health resource, particularly in terms of disease prevention. The initial evidence documenting the positive effects of nature on blood pressure, cholesterol, outlook on life and stressreduction is sufficient to warrant its incorporation into strategies for the Australian National Health Priority Areas of ‘mental health’ and ‘cardiovascular disease’. These two disease categories place a considerable health and economic burden on Australians, and worldwide will be the two biggest contributors to disease by the year 2020. However, due to the positive effects of nature overall on human health and wellbeing, the health benefits of nature may have relevance to all Australian National Health Priority Areas (cancer control, injury prevention and control, cardiovascular health, diabetes mellitus, mental health, asthma, and arthritis and musculoskeletal conditions). The extent to which parks and other contact with nature can contribute to these areas, however, awaits investigation.

There is a clear message for park managers to join public health fora, as not only do parks protect the essential systems of life and biodiversity, but they also are a fundamental setting for health promotion and the creation of wellbeing, that to date has not been fully recognised.

Citation

Healthy parks, healthy people
The health benefits of contact with nature in a park context
A review of relevant literature
2nd edition
March 2008
School of Health and Social Development Faculty of Health, Medicine, Nursing and Behavioural Sciences
Deakin University
Burwood, Melbourne

© Deakin University and Parks Victoria 2008
Authors Dr. Cecily Maller Associate Professor Mardie Townsend Associate Professor Lawrence St Leger Dr Claire Henderson-Wilson Ms Anita Pryor Ms Lauren Prosser Dr Megan Moore

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