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Parks, big and small, needed for public health

Jan 18, 2017 |

Feeling stressed? Research suggests you should to head to your local park as the surrounding greenery may help you relax.

Matilda van den Bosch, an assistant professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health and Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences, co-authored a recent World Health Organization (WHO) report summarizing the health benefits of urban green spaces. The report recommends people have small green spaces very close to where they live, as well as larger areas with room for sports fields.

What are the health benefits of green spaces in cities?

Recent studies have shown multiple positive health effects from urban green spaces, including improved mood, stress relief and promotion of physical activity. Some studies have also used brain imaging techniques to confirm that symptoms of depression are reduced by viewing nature. In addition, people tend to interact more easily in green spaces, building a sense of community. By reducing stress, increasing physical activity, and stimulating social cohesion, we can prevent many chronic disorders. People living in green areas have lower risk for several diseases, such as depression, cardiovascular diseases, and asthma.

Matilda van den Bosch

SPPH and Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences Assistant Professor Matilda van den Bosch

Evidence points towards the need for both small green spaces very close to where people live and spend their days as well as large green spaces. The smaller areas offer a space for everyday encounters and provide visual stimulus of nature. Larger spaces offer formal provisions such as playing fields and opportunities to explore and be physically active.

Who benefits from urban green spaces?

Most people benefit, but in different ways. What we know is that urban green spaces are particularly important for children’s physical activity and opportunities for play, and for fostering a basic sense of the environment.

Disadvantaged populations, often forced to live in less healthy environments, also benefit more from having access to green, healthy spaces. City planners need to maintain and establish green spaces in dense inner-city areas where disadvantaged populations live and could get the most benefit. From a local perspective, it could be worth looking at preserving, or even expanding, the green spaces of Hastings Park.

How big should your local park be, and how far away?

Various studies have addressed size and distance, but there is no consistent evidence as yet about what the optimal size or distance is and for what health outcomes. In the WHO report, we made a recommendation that people live no more than 300 metres from their nearest green space, which should be at least half the size of a rugby pitch or about 0.5 hectares. Urban green spaces are an important public health asset and this fact is now recognized by the world’s largest health organization.

The WHO created a goal to provide children with the space to play and be physically active. We created a tool to help city planners and policy makers meet this goal; it measures the number of people living within the recommended distance to a green space of a certain size. It has been tested in three European cities, and while more testing is needed, it represents an important first step towards an easy-to-use tool to ensure everyone lives nearby a fair-sized green space.

Can looking at a tree make you want to recycle?

While there is no definitive answer, it’s likely that by exposing children to trees and green spaces from early age, their connection to nature gets “under the skin”, hopefully promoting more environmentally-conscious lifestyles. Some early research also suggests that viewing nature and trees automatically induces a behaviour where we are more prone to safeguard healthy and balanced ecosystems

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