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New Study Shows Urban Parks Build Healthy, Happy Cities

by Lincoln Larson, Viniece Jennings and Scott Cloutier

Rapid expansion of cities around the world has raised concerns about deteriorating quality of life in urban areas. People often struggle to find ways to preserve health and happiness amid sometimes harsh, stress-inducing urban environments. A new study using the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, however, suggests the path to long-term happiness may lead straight through the closest park.

Our interdisciplinary team of researchers is using data from Gallup and other sources to explore connections between urban parks, green space and public health. Our work, combined with the growing body of research on this topic, suggests that parks have a unique capacity to enhance multiple components of well-being, such as physical health and sense of community. We're starting to see that park coverage in cities is among the best predictors of residents' health and happiness.

Urban parks are the particular focus of our paper recently published in the journal PLOS ONE. In this study, we explored factors associated with residents' well-being in 44 major cities across the U.S. Key outcome variables in the study featured data from the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, one of the most comprehensive measures of well-being in the world. The index is based on data collection in more than 150 countries, and includes five core elements:

  • Purpose Well-Being: Liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
  • Social Well-Being: Having strong and supportive relationships and love in your life
  • Financial Well-Being: Effectively managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
  • Community Well-Being: The sense of engagement you have with the areas where you live, liking where you live, and feeling safe and having pride in your community
  • Physical Well-Being: Having good health and enough energy to get things done on a daily basis

Each of these elements can be assessed independently or as an aggregate measure of overall well-being at multiple scales. Our team combined this city-level well-being data with information from the U.S. Census Bureau and a variety of other sources to analyze associations between well-being and other factors such as weather, topography, income and employment status. We then integrated municipal data on park quantity, quality and accessibility provided by the Trust for Public Land. In almost every model, results pointed to the same positive relationship between urban parks and well-being.

According to 2014 data, Washington, D.C., has one of the highest percentages of parkland (22%) and the fifth-highest score for well-being. By contrast, Indianapolis-Carmel, Indiana, has only 5% parkland, and its citizens reported the lowest well-being scores among the cities included in our study. Other cities that scored high in both well-being and park coverage included Raleigh-Cary, North Carolina; San Francisco-Oakland, California; Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota; and El Paso, Texas.

It's not just parks but every type of urban green space that matters when it comes to public health. In another paper published earlier this year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, several members of our team worked with Jessica Yun of Georgetown University to synthesize a growing body of research examining links between the benefits provided by urban green space -- often referred to as ecosystem services -- and social determinants of health. Our review focused specifically on the cultivation of health equity across diverse populations.

We found that although parks and green space provide a number of direct and indirect health benefits, few researchers have attempted to bridge disciplinary gaps between ecosystem services and public health frameworks. By neglecting those connections, we're missing the opportunity to advance innovative conversations about urban health, environmental justice and sustainability.

To underscore this point, we recently collaborated with physician Claire Larson of the University of California, San Francisco, to publish an essay in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. In the article, we articulate the need for purposeful integration of urban ecosystem services into preventive medicine. Modern public health challenges require interdisciplinary solutions that combine knowledge of human behavior and our complex relationship with the physical environment. Therefore, physicians, urban planners and park managers could be better positioned to respond to contemporary health challenges by leveraging the unique assets that urban parks and green space provide.

This process will take time. It will require heightened investment in public parks, enhanced communication about the benefits of urban green space, and increased funding for research and training focused on relationships between ecosystem services and public health. Organizations should work together to encourage people to use parks, urban forests, trails and open spaces to improve health. New initiatives such as Park Rx, a collaboration among public land management agencies, healthcare providers and community partners, represent prime examples of the creative thinking needed to solve persistent urban health problems.

The communities in which we live, work and play influence our happiness every day. We should envision, build and revitalize communities to maximize opportunities for happiness while also promoting behavior consistent with environmental, economic and social sustainability. Tools like the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index can help us monitor progress toward achieving those goals.


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