Healthy parks, healthy people – Leisure and recreation

Although many benefits arise from the act of recreation itself, whether it be a hobby or playing a team sport, the concern here is with the types of recreation that occur in natural or semi-natural settings and the particular benefits that may arise from carrying out the activity in those settings.

Leisure and recreation experiences in natural environments probably reduce stress through a number of mechanisms, including a sense of control through active coping or escape, and the therapeutic effects of exposure to natural environments that most likely have learned as well as biological origins (Ulrich et al., 1991a). For example, many people each year flock to parks and wilderness areas for their annual holiday to ‘experience’ the wilderness, and the number of people seeking these experiences is increasing (Freimund and Cole, 2001). Associated with this is a rise in the number of people pursuing non-consumptive nature-related recreational activities, such as birdwatching. This is often referred to as ‘wildlife-watching’ or ‘watchable-wildlife’ and includes observing, feeding, or photographing wildlife (U.S. Department of the Interior et al., 1996). Much work has been carried out on this topic in the United States and although similar trends are likely in Australia, there is almost no data on wildlife watching by Australians or visitors to Australia (D. Jones personal communication).

Recreation in the natural settings provided by parks is becoming increasingly important as our lives become dominated by indoor activities. Some authors anticipate that allowing people to interact with nature (such as spending time in parks during the working week) to reduce tension and increase competence and productivity, will eventually become socially accepted and actively encouraged (S. Kaplan in Lewis, 1996). Pursuing recreation in a park setting enables people to develop a clearer understanding of their relatedness to nature, which can influence their everyday lives and preferences (Martin, 1996). This can have quite
a powerful effect as a form of intervention treatment, for example as used in wilderness therapy (see section titled ‘Health Benefits of Nature in Practice’).

Wilderness and related studies clearly demonstrate that being in a natural environment affects people positively, although the exact benefits are still largely unknown. There are also multiple benefits from brief encounters with nature or experiencing nature on a smaller scale, such as in urban parks. As outlined by Woolley (2003), the most obvious benefits and opportunities that urban green spaces may provide for inner city living are social benefits – that is opportunities for people to participate in events and activities. Similarly, the Sydney Urban Parks Education Research (SUPER) Group (2001), stated that urban green space, in particular parks and gardens, may generate a range of social and economic values for the Australian community.

These benefits may include:
• opportunities for activity for older people;
• supervised child-care;
• health improvement and fitness motivation;
• education in sport, environment and other endeavours;and
• individual personal development.

Survey work has shown that nature is important to people, and numbers of
people seeking nature-related recreation overseas is increasing. Similarly, research indicates that in Sydney, Australia, inner city residents have the highest visitation rate to urban parks, no doubt due to small or non-existent personal gardens or backyards (Veal, 2001). Some of the benefits of being in nature in a park context are presented in Table 2.

Contact with plants

Gardens and gardening

Gardening and gardens are central features of societies throughout the world. It is claimed by some researchers that, across the world, gardening is the most common nature-based activity (Lewis 1996; Kaplan and Kaplan 1989). The American College of Sports Medicine (2004) goes further, suggesting that gardening is among the most popular leisure pursuits (not just among pursuits which are nature-based). Moreover, research indicates that gardening is good for human health and wellbeing in many ways. For example, gardening allows people to interact with the natural environment, which has psychological, physiological and social benefits (Frumkin 2003; Pretty et al. 2007).

As well as the leisure aspects of gardening noted above, gardening provides
opportunities for beneficial physical activity (Nieman 2003), can be used
therapeutically in drug rehabilitation centres, prisons and hospitals(Frumkin 2001; Lewis 1996; Relf 1992), fosters recovery from the stresses and strains of everyday living (Kaplan and Kaplan 1990), and can enhance community cohesion and transform neighbourhood relationships (Lewis 1990, 1992, 1996).

The physiological benefits of gardening are fairly obvious, but the benefits have also been verified by research (including research on gardening and diabetes by Armstrong 2000, and research on gardening and general health maintenance by Galloway and Jokl 2000). Other more recent claims of physical health benefits of gardening include Rothert (2007 p. 26) who states that ‘the lifting and reaching motions of gardening can strengthen weak muscles and increase limited joint flexibility ranges. Physical stamina and skills such as balance and coordination can be improved’. Gardening has also been cited as a means of prevention for osteoporosis. According to Kovach (2006 p.56), researchers at the University of Arkansas ‘found that women 50 and older, who gardened at least once a week, showed higher bone density readings than those who engaged in other types of exercise including jogging, swimming, walking and aerobics’. Gardening has also
been found to be beneficial in reducing another age-related condition dementia. A recent Australian study of nursing home admissions to identify risk factors for dementia (Simons et al. 2006) found a 36% reduction in risk associated with daily gardening. A garden has been likened to a gymnasium: ‘Turning compost is essentially lifting weights, raking is like using a rowing machine’ says Dan Hickey (2004) of the (US) National Gardening Association.

One of the most passionate advocates for the psychological health benefits of plants is Charles Lewis. Lewis (Lewis, 1990; 1992; 1996) believes that vegetation, whether part of a garden, park or wilderness setting has great potential for healing. According to Lewis (1990), when humans first view it, a park or garden is a visual experience. However, the image is then transmitted from the eye to the brain where it is decoded, recognised, and can be transferred to a deeper level of being (Lewis, 1990).

A recent article in a newsletter from the Nursery and Garden Industry Australia Limited (2006 p. 1), citing the 9th annual Ipsos Mackay ‘Mind and Mood’ report, highlights the importance of the restorative and community building aspects of gardening, saying: ‘Australians consistently report higher levels of anxiety, irritability, grumpiness—all associated with what is assumed to be a rising level of tension in the community. … Gardens and gardening may offer one of the few antidotes to a community so frenzied.’

Lewis (1990) also points out that the benefits of gardening are not dependent on age or on physical strength, but are available to the young and the old alike, to those who can be actively involved and those who can only observe or even interact with gardens only through their sense of smell. According to Lewis (1990), plants heal via two modes: observational mode and participatory mode. Observational mode occurs when viewing vegetation in a garden or wilderness, but the observer has no responsibility for its care (e.g. in a park or wilderness area). Participatory mode occurs when an individual is responsible for nurturing a plant or garden (or even wilderness), and it is through their efforts that the plant/s thrive. Lewis (1990) has stated that the act of nurturing and being responsible for plants at a more intimate level is a more intense experience than that gained
through observation alone, however, both observation and participation produce wellbeing (Lewis, 1990). Interestingly, a questionnaire sent to members of the American Horticultural Society and readers of an organic gardening magazine found that the most beneficial aspects of gardening cited by respondents were peacefulness and tranquillity, rather than the tangible benefits of food or flower production (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989).

The Kaplans’ notion of restorative experiences was an idea that emerged from their work in wilderness research, but they found that it is also relevant to the experience of gardening (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1990). As noted previously, restorative experiences are based on the fact that mental effort, stress, and the demand of everyday living cause fatigue and affect one’s capacity to concentrate, or direct attention to one particular task (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1990). A restorative environment fosters recovery from this state. It requires four elements: fascination, a sense of being away, extent or scope, and compatibility with an individual’s inclinations (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989). These four factors are found in natural places such as parks and gardens, or in the act of gardening itself.

The importance of the health benefits of gardening in relation to parks and nature is apparent when considering environment groups like ‘Friends of Parks’. These groups regularly volunteer their time to restore and rehabilitate parks (i.e. public gardens) by planting, watering, and weeding, among other activities. Although the health of people who have private gardens has been investigated somewhat, there was until recently little known about the potential health benefits from membership and participation in a ‘public gardening’ group. In many urban areas, particularly with recent increases in high density housing, contact with nature and natural environments, typically gained through the ‘Australian birthright of owning a free-standing bungalow on a quarter-acre block surrounded by leafy gardens’ (Mayne-Wilson 2005 p. 3) is available only via public parks.

Research by Bhatti and Church (2000) suggests that gardening may be experienced differently by males and females. Other research suggests that socio-economic status influences the amount of time spent in gardens (Armstrong 2000). For children, school gardens have been found to enrich teaching and learning experiences, increase scientific knowledge and environmental awareness, and foster positive relationships between children, adults and the local community (Maller and Townsend 2006).

For older people, especially those living in retirement communities, the
availability of a garden not only enables residents to actively garden but also encourages and supports informal activities ‘such as walking and talking with friends’ (Browne 1992 p. 78). Sifton (2004 p. 89) tells the story of John Angus:

Glenhaven Park Stockport
John Angus had worked all of his life with the land and plants; for John Angus, growing things was more than a way to earn a living, it was his life. … Tragically, when I met John Angus, independently tending a garden or plants was out of the question due to the symptoms of advanced Alzheimer’s disease. His language skills were quite well preserved, but he was particularly troubled by motor co-ordination and movement difficulties. He had so little command or sense of his body that he required full assistance to get dressed or even to sit in a chair. And distress with his losses often led to behavioural symptoms such as agitation. 
John Angus had been living in various institutions for several months when I suggested that he come with me to help with some potting up. The very suggestion brightened him up immensely. As I guided his hands to the potting soil, tears began to run down his smiling cheeks.
With hands immersed in his beloved soil, John Angus said: ‘This is just heaven, just heaven, and I had no idea that it was so handy to home’.

For asylum seekers and refugees, the opportunity to participate in gardening has been shown to assist in dealing with the traumas they have experienced prior to resettlement (Hodge 2003).

Because of the diverse and widely applicable benefits they offer, gardens are increasingly being used for therapeutic reasons


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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