Visiting a park could save your life, scientists say

City dwellers should visit parks more often and take advantage of this free and easy way to boost their physical and mental health, environmental scientists have urged.

New research from the National Environmental Research Program’s Environmental Decisions Hub (NERP’s EDH) shows that despite the abundance of parks in Australian cities, only 60 per cent of the urban population are using these facilities in any week.

This means that 40 per cent of us are missing out on the vast array of health benefits that parks offer, including a lower risk of developing heart disease, stress, anxiety and depression, says Dr Danielle Shanahan of NERP EDH and the University of Queensland (UQ).

“In spite of increasing urbanisation, Australian cities are filled with parks,” says Dr Shanahan. “Governments spend hundreds of millions each year creating and maintaining them, and houses built near them have a higher selling price. Australia clearly values its green spaces.”

Dr Richard Fuller of NERP EDH and UQ says that research worldwide continues to discover the health benefits of being in nature. “For example, spending ten minutes in a park every day – even when we’re not exercising in it – has been shown to lower our blood pressure.”

Another study based in China found that a person’s stress was significantly reduced after they exercise in a forest, compared with indoors. Related research in Switzerland also showed that exercising in parks reduces stress-induced headaches – the effect was the same if the person exercised in a forest.

People who visit local parks also feel more connected to their community, Dr Shanahan says.
“With all these health benefits, parks have enormous potential to reduce Australia’s healthcare costs,” she says. “Depression alone costs Australia more than $12.6 billion each year as well as the massive human cost – if visiting parks can help reduce depression even by one percent, that’s a huge gain for Australians.

“This is why we’re urging more people to spend more time outdoors – having 40 per cent of the urban population missing out is significant, especially when parks are widely available in our cities.”

The Brisbane-based study reveals that frequent park visitors make longer visits, spend much more time in their yards, and often travel further to green spaces than less frequent park users. They are also slightly younger and have a higher level of formal education.

“Research in other countries has shown that people who live in disadvantaged areas often have less access to parks, and this could be one of the reasons some people visit them less. But that’s not the case in Australia,” says Dr Shanahan. “We actually found that the affinity of Australians towards nature, instead of just the availability of parks, determines how much time we spend with nature.”

The next challenge is to understand how and why people have higher or lower levels of nature orientation, as this is clearly linked to the health benefits that we can gain from it, she says.

Dr Fuller says this shows that simply creating more parks in cities won’t necessarily encourage people to visit them: “Cities and local councils need to raise people’s awareness of the great benefits of getting outdoors.

“We need more support and encouragement of community activities in disadvantaged areas. For example, the Nature Play programs in Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia provide heaps of ideas for helping kids enjoy the great outdoors.”

“Our children especially benefit from spending more time outdoors. Kids who grow up experiencing natural environments may benefit developmentally and have a heightened environmental awareness as adults than those who don’t.”

The study “Opportunity or orientation? Who uses urban parks and why” by Brenda B. Lin, Richard A. Fuller, Robert Bush, Kevin J. Gaston and Danielle F. Shanahan is published in PLoS ONE. See: bit.ly/1nQHh5O

The study “Socio-economic inequalities in access to nature on public and private lands: a case study from Brisbane, Australia” by D.F. Shanahan, B.B. Lin, K.J. Gaston, R. Bush and R.A. Fuller is published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning. See: bit.ly/1yJGaXZ

The study “What is the role of trees and remnant vegetation in attracting people to urban parks?” by D.F. Shanahan, B.B. Lin, K.J. Gaston, R. Bush and R.A. Fuller is published in the journal Landscape Ecology. See: bit.ly/16pXpa6

Source: National Environmental Research Program

photo credit: WanderingtheWorld (www.ChrisFord.com) via photopin cc

  • Tom

    When I used to live in San Francisco I consciously knew that the Bay Area's world-class system of public land was the only thing that kept me sane. Many a day spent out in a beautiful place I wondered why all six million Bay Area residents didn't empty out of the cities and into the parks, even as I knew that if they did, it would destroy both my reasons for being there and the land itself. So for us nature lovers, it's a good thing most urban-dwelling human rats have no idea what's driving them crazy, because if they moved to fix their problem we would go crazy along with them.

  • sleat

    It's a pleasure to ride the bike to work through the green spaces of Sydney!

  • Michael Mallal

    Yes I try to get to Centennial Park as often as possible but doubt I will be visiting a National Park as I believe shooting is now permitted and I have no intention of becoming a statistic. Didn't a drunken Dick Chaney shoot one of his buddies while shooting birds? I have a lot of respect for ppl who shoot birds and animals. Yes lots.

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