Make your park healthier

Two people work together on a community garden plot.
Image credit Darcy Kiefel

What is a healthy park?

Parks are an important tool that public health professionals, planners, and city policymakers can use to encourage active behavior. Public parks have a long history of being valued for their public health benefits. In the late 1800s, doctors were public parks’ biggest advocates. Central Park in New York City was planned to be the “lungs of the city” to cleanse the air pollution that plagued Manhattan. These days, public parks continue to play a critical role in public health because they are accessible ways for the public to address multiple facets of personal health and well-being. Community engagement during the design process is critical to identifying healthy amenities people will value and use.

Parks for physical health

Parks can support physical health by providing a free, close-to-home, and accessible opportunity for physical activity. Studies have shown a positive correlation between access to open space and physical activity, one of the best ways to fight obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other health problems.

Proven tools to improve physical health through parks include amenities like:

  • Athletic fields
  • Fitness programs
  • Pools
  • Multiuse trails and running tracks
  • Water sports
  • Playgrounds
  • Open fields
  • Fitness equipment

A group of smiling women in bright green shirts do exercises in a park.
Image credit Theo Stroomer

Parks for mental health

Parks support mental health in two ways:

  1. Parks relieve stress and enhance mental health by providing opportunities for contact and connection with nature. Even if you can’t get out to a natural area, the “nearby nature” available in local parks in urban and rural settings improves health, wellness, and productivity.
  2. Gathering in green spaces provides the benefit of social connectedness, especially in socially isolated populations like the elderly.

A few examples of park-based tools to improve mental health include elements like:

  • Social events
  • Gathering spaces
  • Mature trees
  • Visibility and safety measures
  • Noise reduction features, like berms or walls
  • Water features

Two women laugh on a bench in an opens space with bright green plants.
Image credit Annie Bang

Parks for environmental health

Ecosystem services are the many benefits provided by our cities’ natural systems, such as clean air and water, flood management, and crop pollination. Public health and well-being also benefit from the services these natural systems provide. For example, poor environmental conditions, such as air pollution and high temperatures from urban heat islands, can negatively affect human health by triggering asthma and heat stroke.

Parks and open space can be designed to include elements, such as trees and native plants, to help create environmental conditions that are hospitable to human health.

Park features that have been shown to improve environmental health include things like:

  • Tree canopy
  • Cool pavement
  • Shade structures
  • Community gardens
  • Green infrastructure
  • Diverse plantings

Yellow flowers in the foreground border a path next to still glassy water.
Image credit Darcy Kiefel

Feeling a little overwhelmed? Don’t worry! Almost no parks include all of these elements! A good place to start is trying to ensure that your neighborhood park has two or three elements from each of these lists.