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Parks Essential for Human Health

Parks Essential for Human Health
May 10, 2011

A walk in the park is more than just a nice way to spend time, it's an essential component for good health, according to University of Illinois environment and behavior researcher Frances "Ming" Kuo.

As Kuo explains "through the decades, parks advocates, landscape architects, and popular writers have consistently claimed that nature had healing powers, but until recently, their claims haven't undergone rigorous scientific assessment."

Kuo is also the director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois and has studied the effect of green space on humans in a number of settings in order to prove or disprove the folklore notions.

Kuo continues "researchers have studied the effects of nature in many different populations, using many forms of nature.

"They've looked at Chicago public housing residents living in high-rises with a tree or two and some grass outside their apartment buildings; college students exposed to slide shows of natural scenes while sitting in a classroom; children with attention deficit disorder playing in a wide range of settings; senior citizens in Tokyo with varying degrees of access to green walkable streets; and middle-class volunteers spending their Saturdays restoring prairie ecosystems, just to name a few."

Kuo says that although the diversity of the research on this subject is impressive and important, even more important is the rigour with which the work was conducted.

She explains "in any field with enthusiasts, you will find a plethora of well-meaning but flimsy studies purporting to 'prove' the benefits of X.

"(However), in the last decade or so, rigorous work on this question has become more of a rule than an exception. The studies aren't simply relying on what research participants report to be the benefits of nature. The benefits have been measured objectively using data such as police crime reports, blood pressure, performance on standardised neurocognitive tests, and physiological measures of immune system functioning."

Kuo believes that rather than relying on small, self-selected samples of nature lovers such as park-goers, scientists are increasingly relying on study populations that have no particular relationship to nature. One study examined children who were receiving care from a clinic network targeting low-income populations. Another looked at all United Kingdom residents younger than retirement age listed in national mortality records for the years 2001-2005.

"Scientists are routinely taking into account income and other differences in their studies. So the question is no longer, do people living in greener neighborhoods have better health outcomes? (They do.) Rather, the question has become, do people living in greener neighborhoods have better health outcomes when we take income and other advantages associated with greener neighborhoods into account?" That answer is also, yes, according to Kuo.

After undergoing rigorous scientific scrutiny, Kuo says the benefits of nature still stand, adding "we still find these benefits when they are measured objectively, when non-nature lovers are included in our studies, when income and other factors that could explain a nature-health link are taken into account. And the strength, consistency and convergence of the findings are remarkable."

Kuo draws an analogy with animals, stating "just as rats and other laboratory animals housed in unfit environments undergo systematic breakdowns in healthy, positive patterns of social functioning, so do people.

"In greener settings, we find that people are more generous and more sociable. We find stronger neighbourhood social ties and greater sense of community, more mutual trust and willingness to help others.

"In less green environments, we find higher rates of aggression, violence, violent crime, and property crime - even after controlling for income and other differences."

Images: Fitness activities in the Adelaide Park Lands (top) and touch footy in Centennial Parklands (below). 

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30th April 2010 - FITNESS AUSTRALIA TAKES LEAD ON COUNCIL ‘SWEAT TAXES’ 

16th April 2010 - PARKS A KEY TO PHYSICAL ACTIVITY

27th June 2008 - PARKS FORUM HIGHLIGHTS VALUE OF PARKS

 


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