Vivid Thoughts: Parks as an essential public service
Why parks underpin our health and wellbeing
As the coronavirus outbreak alters the way we live our lives, the UK’s public parks and greenspaces provide essential services for millions of adults and children who want to continue to live healthy and happy lives. This is especially true for those who face barriers to exercise and leisure in other spaces like gyms and private gardens, and critically, at a time when opportunities for exercise and fresh air are limited while we spend more time at home. Long term funding is not in place to ensure these essential public services continue to meet the needs of people now and in the future.
Parks for all
Universal access to parks is central to a community’s health and mental wellbeing. Parks provide us with space to take in nature, get some exercise and enjoy time beyond the confines of our homes. While daily routines and travel are restricted, the UK’s network of local parks and greenspaces continue to provide mental and physical health benefits when they can be easily accessed. The evidence of the health benefits of visiting local parks is clear and the consequences of not having access leads to poorer health in areas of the UK. Inequality in mental and physical health arises for residents without private gardens that also lack local access to public parks.
Health through design
Being able to spend no time per week in greenspaces, compared to two hours per week, is equivalent in loss of wellbeing to around one third of the impact of losing your job. Fewer options to exercise and enjoy nature during this period of social distancing gives us an appreciation of the effect of living in communities with limited greenspace. We know the detrimental effect that not visiting nature has on wellbeing. The UK government regularly surveys people, asking them how they are feeling, asking them to report how satisfied they are with life and their anxiety levels. People who regularly visit parks report higher levels of life satisfaction than those who do not, after controlling for many other factors that affect a person’s wellbeing. The University of Exeter finds that those who spend at least 120 minutes per week in a park or greenspace get high levels of benefits. In recent work comparing the effect of regularly visiting parks to not visiting we found that the effect on self-reported wellbeing of spending two hours per week in greenspaces is equivalent to one third of the impact of losing one’s job.
Physical exercise in parks improves life expectancy and is worth around £2,000 per year in health benefits for high activity visitors and £500 for those who are less active. Parks and greenspaces provide crucial physical health benefits to individuals which can reduce the burden on the NHS in the medium and long-term. The NHS recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity (like brisk walking) activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity (like running) activity a week. These levels of physical activity reduce the risk of common killers including heart disease and diabetes. Physical exercise in parks translates into healthy life years gained and totals around £2,000/year for someone who regularly works out in their local park. Designing parks to accommodate use by members of the community with different health needs ensures these vital assets contribute to maximising the physical and mental wellbeing of people in the UK.
Measures to protect people from the coronavirus have put parks at the centre of national consciousness when holidays and other leisure facilities are closed. The role that these spaces play in providing wellbeing has been appreciated by many confined to their homes with limited access to private space. In the immediate future, parks continue to provide a vital means of maintaining the health of people across the UK, provided government guidelines on social distancing are adhered to. Beyond this, parks will continue to be an integral part of the fabric of our physical and mental health. Recognising the essential character of the service, we give priority to making public greenspaces available to every local community in the UK, filling in the gaps in the network, and we should establish resilient, lasting funding arrangements for public greenspaces that will mean generations to come enjoy healthy and happy lives.
Date: April 2020