Parks: An Opportunity to Leverage Environmental Health

By Merriam, Dee | Journal of Environmental Health, January-February 2016 | Go to article overview

Parks: An Opportunity to Leverage Environmental Health


Merriam, Dee, Journal of Environmental Health


Editor's Note: NEHA strives to provide up-to-date and relevant information on environmental health and to build partnerships in the profession. In pursuit of these goals, we feature a column from the Environmental Health Services Branch (EHSB) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in every issue of the Journal.

In these columns, EHSB and guest authors share insights and information about environmental health programs, trends, issues, and resources. The conclusions in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of CDC.

Dee Merriam is with the National Center for Environmental Health, Healthy Community Design Initiative at CDC.

Do you know your local parks and recreation director? He or she could be a great public health ally. Parks and recreation departments align with environmental public health on many cross-cutting activities such as swimming pool inspections, mosquito control, rabies management, and food permits. Parks also provide children access to safe and healthy places to play. Furthermore, they can mitigate safety hazards by protecting land such as flood plains and unstable slopes from inappropriate development. Public health and parks and recreation departments have many synergistic goals that could be leveraged to make both more effective.

In communities across the country, parks and recreation departments implement environmentally responsible land management practices and can be an important partner for environmental health programs. Parks often protect environmentally sensitive areas. For example, flood plains that are protected from inappropriate development in parks can store storm water, reducing downstream flooding. Protection of groundwater recharge areas allows storm water to seep into the ground, filtering non-point source pollutants and preventing them from entering streams. Tree canopies in parks can mitigate urban heat islands by providing shade and absorbing carbon dioxide and pollutants (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2015).

In addition, parks provide opportunities for public health promotion including physical exercise, stress relief, and education programs. Studies have shown that access to green space can reduce the effects of poverty on health (Maas et al., 2009; Mitchell & Popham, 2008). A study of social interactions among residents of a public housing project in Chicago found that access to green space reduced aggression and improved social interactions (Kuo & Sullivan, 2001). Other studies have found that children who walk or bike to parks visit them more frequently and are more active (Grow et al., 2008; Mackett & Paskins, 2008). Because many environmental public health benefits are associated with parks, a strong partnership with your local parks and recreation department could be a great advantage to your department.

Here are some questions you can use to start a dialogue with the communities your department serves.

1. Does your community have a master plan that includes an inventory of environmentally sensitive sites and ecosystems that need protection?

If not, encourage the creation of a map of flood plains, steep slopes, and other areas that should be protected as the foundation for a green space system. Work with parks or planning staff to establish a vision plan that makes environmental health concerns a priority. This could include establishing buffers around key resources such as flood plains and groundwater recharge areas. Setbacks or buffers help protect resources and create locations for facilities such as trails, playgrounds, and picnic areas that leverage community investments.

2. Do at-risk children in your community have a park that they can walk to?

Sometimes a park is intended to serve a neighborhood, but its entrance has an inconvenient location (e.g., on a busy street that requires a long, roundabout walk). …

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