Data Mines: Three Projects That Advance Parks and Recreation

Parks & Recreation, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Data Mines: Three Projects That Advance Parks and Recreation


Synopsis of 2010 Research Papers: A special report on the key benefits of parks

Parks offer a wide array of benefits beyond just physical. Across the country in municipalities large and small, park and recreation advocates and administrators face a contradiction for which the solution requires compelling data. The situation facing U. S. parks is stark: A societal resource more popular and beneficial than at any other time in history is pitted against those who would cut its funding. Until recently, much of what we know in support of parks was either anecdotal, dated, or too geographically diverse to sway municipal decision-makers. It's therefore essential to have current, vetted information.

Following is the opening passage of a NRPA report summarizing the key categories in which parks and recreation contribute to the building of healthy, vibrant communities. This white paper outlines in six main areas the latest research into the benefits provided by parks: physical health, mental health, social functioning, youth development, environment, and economic impact. For the full report, visit the digital edition of Parks & Recreation, where the full sourcing for this report appears: www.parksandrec-magazine.org.

More than one-third of adults in this country are clinically obese, and the statistics for children are just as grim--one-third of American children are overweight, and one in six is obese. Obese children are two to three times more likely to be hospitalized. It's an epidemic with complex aspects. Yet, it's clear that increased the physical activity is an important part of the solution. Recognizing the importance of physical activity, First Lady Michelle Obama launched "Let's Move Outside," a campaign to combat childhood obesity and promote family health. The campaign helps families locate parks and plan physical activities.

Leisure is the part of life where the most physical activity should occur. While exercise trends come and go, people tend to stick with the physical activities that they enjoy most. Parks provide the venues for these activities--organized sports, running, biking, gardening, hiking, and swimming, among many others.

Multiple studies indicate that time outdoors is the strongest correlate of children's physical activity. However, many children are deprived of outdoor time for lack of sufficient local options. One-third of Americans say that there are not enough playgrounds in their community to serve the number of children who live there. In poorer communities, many residents don't own cars, and thus face more obstacles in traveling to parks. A study of California youth found that one in four reported having no access to a safe park. Low-income youth without access to a safe park were significantly more likely to be physically inactive.

Parks play a key role in the well-being of seniors. A study of elderly residents of Tokyo found that those living in neighborhoods with walkable green spaces lived longer and reported better functional status than those in less green neighborhoods. A study of 500 older adults in Portland, Oregon, found that greater availability of local facilities and green space resulted in higher levels of basic physical activity. An elderly woman credited her community garden in Florida with giving her the will to live again.

Benefits can be derived just from a lasting view of nature. In some cases, a green can provide physiological benefits beyond directly physical activity. A study of glucose levels in diabetic individuals revealed that exposure to nature has a unique impact on physical health: Diabetic individuals taking 30-minute walks in a forest experienced lowered blood glucose levels far more than the same amount of time spent doing physical activity in other settings. The half-hour forest walks resulted in larger drops in blood glucose than even three hours of cycling. Studies in hospitals have shown that merely enjoying a view of nature can provide physical benefits. …

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