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Urban parks aren’t just pretty. They’re also good for your health, report shows

Michael Diaz-Rivera plays with his 2-year-old daughter Aria at a Denver park on Friday, April 23, 2021. A recent report from the World Health Organization’s European Center for Environment and Health highlighted several benefits of urban green and 'blue' spaces.
Thomas Peipert
/
AP
Michael Diaz-Rivera plays with his 2-year-old daughter Aria at a Denver park on Friday, April 23, 2021. A recent report from the World Health Organization’s European Center for Environment and Health highlighted several benefits of urban green and 'blue' spaces.

The abundance of parks and lakes in the Mountain West has benefits for the environment and makes the area more desirable to visit. These spaces – especially when located in a city – can also work wonders for human health.

A recent report from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) European Center for Environment and Health highlighted several benefits of green spaces—and 'blue' spaces, like streams and rivers—in urban areas. They not only trap carbon dioxide and improve water quality, but they also offer increased opportunities for people to meditate, socialize, and be active.

“What we really wanted to explore is that health and well-being,” said Sinaia Netanyahu, program manager of Environment and Health Impact Assessment at the WHO and an author on the report. “If most of the people live in the city … we want to make sure that they have services, and the green and blue spaces are one of the services.”

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that as of 2020, 80% of the nation’s population lives in urban areas. Netanyahu said as the overall population increases and cities become more dense, planners often focus on housing development, citing the high costs of natural areas in their final decision.

“Oftentimes there is a dilemma,” she said. “Should we develop and build another residential area or public facility or a road or a bridge? Or, should we keep it clean, green or blue for the public, for everybody?”

When they do focus on open spaces, it’s usually to increase the property value and make the surrounding area attractive, according to Netanyahu. But she said the health benefits are not always taken into account.

“It's more than just a park for concerts or a park for beautiful flowers,” she said. “It's a park for reducing heat waves, dealing with air pollution, dealing with noise.”

The report drew on several case studies to back up these health benefits. One study done in London in 2017 shows that the city’s parks reduced health costs by $1.19 billion per year. Roughly 40% of those costs were solely related to mental health.

The report also noted other benefits of being in nature: increased spiritual connection, more prosocial behavior among children and reduced levelsofdepression, even when just looking at natural spaces. Additionally, no-cost public parks in urban areas help eliminate inequalities for groups that struggle to afford to travel to natural areas outside the city, Netanyahu said.

“If you bring together the environmental, the health, the well-being, the social, the cultural, the spiritual benefits, then they can easily outweigh the other costs,” she added. “Especially if you look at it as the long-term benefits.”

But the report is not all benefits-oriented. It also noted the risks when natural spaces are closer to cities: increased allergens and disease-carrying pests, as well as heightened risk for drownings or fires.

Netanyahu said stakeholders and planners should be doing more to add green and blue spaces like parks and ponds – and refurbish neglected existing spaces – in cities.

“We would like to see mayors waking up in the morning and saying, ‘Okay, we serve the public. How can we make the public healthier and happier?’” she said. “Urban planners need to see a person's health and well-being at the center when they plan.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Emma VandenEinde