I noticed a wide variety of people at the provincial park I recently visited: families with young children, older adults, groups of twenty-something friends, as well as international tourists clearly in awe at their first glimpse of Canada’s spectacular wilderness. As I pondered the potential motives all these people might have for spending time in a park, I wondered what they were hoping to experience and why people enjoy parks.
The appeal of parks and green space may be a remnant of our evolutionary past. Early humans were immersed in and dependent on the natural environment. Knowledge of plants and animals would have been essential for survival. Our interest in hiking, camping, or watching wildlife may fulfill a need to reconnect with nature, particularly when we spend most of our time indoors. This innate need shows up in our desire to incorporate nature into our built environment. For example, office workers in cubicles bring more plants into their workspace than workers with windows.
Until recently, there was not much research devoted to park users’ motivations and experiences. Dr. Chris Lemieux, a geographer at Wilfrid Laurier University, led a large-scale study in 2012-13 to determine why people visit parks. His team did their research in Alberta, gathering responses from both day use and overnight park visitors. It may come as a surprise to learn that physical well-being was not the only motive for park visits. Rather, the majority of visitors sought out parks for the potential mental health benefits. Parents indicated that parks provided learning and developmental opportunities for children. Visitors reported improvements in their psychological and emotional well-being after spending time in the parks, and this was more pronounced for women.
This research suggests that people see parks as more than just recreational. Parks may be a health and well-being resource – a way to cope with stress, to manage moods, and increase energy. This perspective is incorporated in the growing Healthy Parks, Healthy People (HPHP) movement, based on evidence of nature’s benefits and the philosophy that conservation should be a public health strategy. HPHP organizations exist in Australia, the U.S., the U.K., South Africa, and Canada, striving to better understand the relationship between the natural environment and human health.
Last Friday, July 17th, was Healthy Parks, Healthy People day in Ontario. Day use in all Ontario Parks was free, to highlight the physical and mental health benefits of getting outdoors and to kickoff the August HPHP 30×30 Nature Challenge (a great way to motivate yourself to get some regular outdoor time, if you missed the May 30×30 Nature Challenge).
The HPHP philosophy is relevant to local parks. As our communities become more dense and the population more urban (by 2030 it is predicted that 3 out of 5 people will live in cities) we will need strategies to ensure citizens have a high quality of life while adapting to a changing urban environment and changing climate. This has important consequences for the way we design our communities, including our urban parks and protected areas. Although the mere presence of parks may not guarantee a healthy population, new research emphasizes a key feature of most parks – trees – and their effects on human health.
A recently published study in the journal Nature matched tree density in Toronto with self-reported health information and public health records. The researchers examined the impact of street trees, controlling for socioeconomic and demographic factors that impact health. Twenty or more trees in a block reduces the risk for cardio-metabolic conditions comparable to being 1.4 years younger or having $20,000 more of annual income (living on a street with 10 or more trees has a health impact comparable to having $10,000 more income).
One might say that tree research seems to be taking root. In another study, in Boston, people living in areas with little green space had higher mortality rates following a stroke, compared to people with more green space. The findings have clear implications for urban planning. Trees are an integral part of a city, for ecosystem, aesthetic, and health reasons.
These findings, along with the growing evidence of nature’s effect on immune functioning and stress reduction, underscore the necessity of maintaining national, provincial, and city parks. Without access to a provincial park, there are still ways to get a little green into our routine. The last time I rode my bike through Jackson Park, my overwhelming impression was of the spectacular and diverse trees (long before reading the latest tree-health research). A variety of people were enjoying that marvelous park we have tucked into the middle of our city – each person with their own motive for being there. No knowledge of how the trees were influencing our physical health was necessary for a restorative experience.
In Peterborough, we have so many wonderful parks and green spaces we may underestimate the value of individual trees. The dictionary defines a tree hugger as ‘someone who is regarded as foolish or annoying because of being too concerned about protecting trees, animals, and other parts of the natural world from pollution and other threats’. The good folks at Merriam-Webster will probably want to update their definition, replacing ‘foolish or annoying’ with ‘savy and health conscious’.
Next time we are passing through Jackson park, or even walking by one of the trees along the street, perhaps we should consider stopping and taking a moment to express our appreciation and say thank you. Reduced risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, improved immune functioning, not to mention air quality, air conditioning, and beauty – all very good reasons to hug a tree.