What is it about the color green that is so calming and uplifting? Can an elegant row of trees or the wide open expanse of a prairie transport you out of the hustle and bustle of city life, even if just for a few minutes? Urbana parks bring color into our lives in so many different ways. In this blog, we explore some of the ways that urban parks, like those within the Urbana Park District, offer city dwellers the chance to commune with nature and how they support healthy social interactions with the community.
Urban parks can range from a small corner with some trees and a bench to sprawling terrains bigger than entire small towns. Whatever the size, parks offer much needed green spaces amongst the sea of concrete, metal, and noise that is most cities. When a park lets you disappear into the trees, a bright green field of grass, or an elaborate flower garden, you can get a bit of the restorative peace that comes from “getting out of town”. Parks help take us out of the spaces we are used to seeing every day. They can help break our routine, change our point of view, and slow time down, even if only for a few moments. A trip to the park can even provide an exciting opportunity to observe the local wildlife and marvel at what types of animals thrive in such a busy environment.
Numerous studies from around the world have found that being able to access green spaces reduces stress and improves well-being, particularly for people who live in urban environments. Regular access to greens spaces has been found to improve cardiovascular health, reduce mortality, and improve pregnancy outcomes.
Parks make physical activity more appealing for many people, and an increase in exercise plays a role in enhancing their well-being. Just being able to see, smell, and wander through trees, grass, and greenery breaks the everyday grind for city dwellers, relaxes the mind, and just helps people breathe and take a nice pause.
The CDC notes a number of different ways that urban parks make communities happier, healthier, and safer:
- Parks encourage physical activity: they provide a space for all different types of exercise, ranging from a leisurely stroll to a game of tag. Not only do urban parks provide a free place for people to be active, if they are welcoming and well designed their existence will encourage people to get out more to enjoy the trees, flowers, and meadows.
- Parks can help reduce injuries in the community: as an extension of encouraging physical activity, parks make available a safer location for recreation. When people—particularly children—are able to exercise and play with a buffer that keeps them away from high traffic areas and busy streets, the likelihood of accidents is greatly reduced.
- Parks can lead to better mental health: green spaces serve as a place where people can relax and get some fresh air, which reduces stress. Several studies have also found a correlation between the availability of parks or other green spaces and a lower risk for depression or anxiety. While the direct mechanism remains unknown, researchers suggest that parks provide “psychological restoration” that can “mitigate negative effects from the socially dense and noisy city environment that heighten stress.” The effects are particularly strong in children, where regular access to parks appears to improve their cognitive development.
- Parks can facilitate and increase social interaction: outdoor public spaces can bring the community together in a number of ways. People gather and feel more comfortable chatting or interacting spontaneously than they might on a city street. Parks provide a space where young people can meet friends before they reach an age where cafes, bars, and restaurants become the norm. The availability of free, public gathering spaces can also make the whole community feel welcome, particularly lower-income residents who may feel shut out from more expensive forms of entertainment.
- Parks provide environmental benefits to the community: green spaces also lead to healthier air, water, and landscapes. Parks can be designed not just to offer recreation and natural beauty, but serve as “green infrastructure” to help a city improve air quality or manage stormwater. A park can become a useful community space for areas that are unsuitable for commercial or residential development, such as unstable slopes. The presence of parks can also influence a city’s microclimate, helping to mitigate the strength of urban heat islands.
In the age of COVID-19, urban parks offer an even more critical opportunity for healthy interactions. As virtually all of our regular public gathering spaces have yet to re-open fully, or are choosing to be open virtually, people have really struggled with the isolation imposed by lockdown orders. Even though technology makes it easy to keep in touch, people crave in-person interaction, and finding safe ways to get together has been too challenging, particularly in densely populated urban areas. Parks provide a way for people to get together, without getting too close to each other. Friends can gather while maintaining a safe social distance and regain some sense of normalcy in their lives.
Parks benefit our health and happiness in so many ways. Not only do parks provide a space that encourages community interaction, but those interactions are in turn often centered on healthy activities that allow the mind and body to recharge. Parks offer a space for discovery to keep curious young minds engaged and (hopefully) even entice eyes up from the lure of a cell phone to appreciate the surrounding nature or warm sunshine. Urban parks are truly a cornerstone of healthy communities.
A note from the Urbana Park District: Everyone is welcome to our parks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fresh air, exercise, walking, and enjoying nature are important to mental, physical and spiritual health. Be sure to visit our parks, just follow all public health advice. Even in a pandemic, “You Belong Here!” For more information please visit www.urbanaparks.org.