Parks and Natural Land are Part of a Culture of Health

NJHI 2018: Upstream Action Acceleration Camden-specific Module to the NJ Conservation Blueprint Online Mapping Tool

There is growing evidence indicating green spaces are a necessary part of the health infrastructure of a community.  Trees send oxygen into the air, allowing people with asthma to breathe easier. Places to play encourage activity and exercise, helping people avoid obesity and heart disease. The World Health Organization cites that estimates show physical inactivity, linked to poor walkability and lack of access to recreational areas, accounts for 3.3% of global deaths. People seek green spaces to relax and unwind after a tough day at work, helping them resist depression and other mental illness. “Park Rx” has grown in popularity as doctors and health practitioners prescribe a walk in the woods, or a dose of nature, instead of medication to improve health. Related: Learn about the National Parks Rx program.

Parks need to become a larger part of the discussion when it comes to health and healthy communities.  In reading the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Building a Culture of Health: A Policy Roadmap to Help All New Jerseyans Live Their Healthiest Lives report, “parks” were mentioned just once—in relation to supporting smoke-free parks, which is an admirable initiative. While access to parks and open spaces might not be as critical or acute a need as access to clean healthy food or medical services, it does contribute significantly to quality of life, both directly and indirectly.

Our project focuses on Camden, a city rich in parkland and where 95% of residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park. We are looking for ways to foster a closer connection between parks and community health so that residents can gain increased health benefits from their nearby parks. Accessing and experiencing these outdoor areas are important.

In Camden Community Conversations, a process conducted by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission in 2017, people were asked, “Where do you go to be healthy?” Parks were mentioned second, just behind health care providers.

We want to learn how Camden’s parks can best serve the health needs of the community.

We want to learn how Camden’s parks can best serve the health needs of the community. So we asked 20 community institutions, including nonprofits, neighborhood associations, residents and neighborhood groups if they use parks, and why or why not.

According to the individuals interviewed, non-existent sidewalks or those in poor condition limit walkability and access to parks. Distant transit stops from parks represent barriers. Littering and poorly maintained facilities indicate to potential park-goers that the area seems uncared for and unsafe. Facilities offering comfort­ through benches, water fountains and shade encourage visits.

The Policy Roadmap report recommends policies of equitable access to safe and affordable housing. The report also recommends policies to ensure roads, sidewalks and transit systems are safe and accessible. Our preliminary findings in Camden have indicated that these recommendations, if fulfilled, will also greatly maximize use and health benefits of parks.

Natural areas need to be a part of affordable housing options, transit systems and destinations for sidewalks and bike lanes. We need the health care community to recognize that natural areas are a critical part of a community’s health infrastructure. We invite the health community to use green spaces to “deliver whole person care to promote overall health and well-being.” We encourage you to raise your voice to support health-friendly environments – and we are poised to help!

Related: Download Parks, Trails, and Health Workbook – A Tool for Planners, Parks & Recreation Professionals, and Health Practitioners, developed by the National Park Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Grantee Blog regularly publishes updates from NJHI-supported communities. Bookmark this site to stay up-to-date and share in the work of building healthier communities across New Jersey.
Laura Szwak
NJ Conservation Foundation