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Protecting parks for public health: why bother?


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Matthew Hobbs is a PhD Candidate at Leeds Beckett University studying the built environment and its relationship with obesity. He is also a Lecturer in Physical Activity, Exercise and Health at Leeds Trinity University. In this blog post, he outlines his current research which explores the importance of parks for public health.

Protecting parks for public health: why bother?
Why should we protect our parks?

Historically, parks were created to enhance public health providing clean water and air in highly polluted cities. Some parks even enabled bathing opportunities in hot waters for healing purposes regardless of the park users’ income. Today, parks provide spaces to be active for both young and older individuals. Public Health England also recently emphasised the importance of activity friendly towns and cities for reducing the obesity epidemic. This is particularly important at a time where 1 in 4 UK adults are obese [1] and in children many are not sufficiently active for good health [2]. Furthermore, in addition to the individual benefits as shown below, park upkeep can also positively benefit local house prices and therefore the economy. 

 

The benefit

The evidence

Physical activity

Even small parks help accumulate physical activity [3] which means individuals are more likely to meet the government’s health guidance for 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity five times per week. This is associated with reduced chance of all-cause mortality, metabolic health issues such as type 2 diabetes and some cancers.

 

Obesity

Physical activity is also a piece of the wider jigsaw for reducing obesity helping with weight maintenance - keeping the weight off once lost [4].

 

 

Children

In children, contact with nature positively affects blood pressure, cholesterol, outlook on life, stress reduction, and behavioural issues [5].

 

Health inequalities

Parks may also reduce health inequalities. There are socio-economic and racial disparities in physical activity and obesity, for individuals who are more likely to experience this disparity parks (even the smaller ones) may be particularly important. Improving access to green space in poorer areas may help to address differences in health between social groups.

 

Biodiversity

Thinking more broadly, parks contribute to biodiversity, help mitigate climate change and contributes to improved air quality [6].

 

Property values

Open spaces such as parks and recreation areas can have a positive effect on nearby residential property values, and can lead to proportionately higher property tax revenues for local governments [7].

 

Economy

A recent research synthesis found that other than the potentially negative economic effect of the “nuisance” factor associated with overly busy or unattractive parks, recreation areas were found to produce positive economic outcomes for developers, homeowners and local governments [7].

Current research

I am currently investigating how neighbourhood characteristics such as deprivation, the availability of fast-food outlets (food environment) and the availability of parks and/or gyms (physical activity environment) may be associated with health outcomes such as obesity. The data has been obtained in collaboration with the Yorkshire Health Study which is a large prospective cohort endorsed by the National Institute for Health Research Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care Yorkshire and Humber (NIHR CLAHRC YH). The results therefore come from high-quality data and methods which helps draw real world and impactful conclusions from our study findings. We are in a unique position to provide specific local-level guidance across South Yorkshire to help decision making when planning a future of healthier urban and rural neighbourhoods. 

The park project: Rotherham

This project is based on a unique collaboration bringing together expertise from, Leeds Beckett University, The University of Sheffield, and The University of Liverpool. Currently, we are assessing both park access and quality in Rotherham; park quality was assessed based on the characteristics of the facilities available within the park. The parks were then mapped against deprivation and health outcomes in the population local to the park. 

 

Our preliminary results show that contrary to perhaps popular belief, the most deprived areas have greater access to parks. Furthermore, parks in deprived areas also have more features i.e. playgrounds and amenities i.e. benches. However, the most deprived areas also had the most safety concerns such as litter and evidence of alcohol abuse which may point to antisocial behaviour. Although deprivation was important for explaining variations in obesity, park availability and quality did not affect obesity levels in the local area. Perhaps what is more worrying is the lack of, or poor quality of facilities identified within our research across all segments of society both in the most and least deprived areas. This project represents the first of many which are underway which begin to challenge some of the existing assumptions within the evidence base around how the environment may impact on our health. We have advanced previous research further by investigating the quality of parks, in addition to just simply the number of parks.

 

The impact and relevance of our research

The importance and impact of our research is highlighted in the recent Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee report on public parks. It warns that “parks face a period of decline unless their contribution to areas such as public health, community integration and climate change mitigation is recognised”. Although parks were of higher quality in more deprived areas, our research suggests this period of decline may have already begun; park quality scores were rated as low to moderate across most neighbourhoods with very few classified as good quality parks. This research can be used to emphasise the importance of parks and their upkeep in our society and where perhaps is best to intervene. As outlined in the CLG report, reduced funding for parks is unlikely to benefit park quality. Although, our study found no association with obesity it can be used to encourage increased funding for parks as this has been shown to impact on a wide range of public health and wellbeing measures and safety concerns were prevalent in the most deprived areas. The lack of high quality parks identified across the study area were of concern. The results of this project are currently being finalised prior to publication in an academic journal. 

 

Key references
  1. Ng et al. (2014) Global, regional, and national prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adults during 1980–2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013. The Lancet, 384 (9945), pp.766-781.
  2. Cooper et al. (2017) Objectively measured physical activity and sedentary time in youth: the International children’s accelerometry database (ICAD). International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 12 (1), pp.113.
  3. Cohen, D. et al. (2016) The First National Study of Neighbourhood Parks. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 51 (4), pp.419-426.
  4. Swift, D. et al. (2014) The Role of Exercise and Physical Activity in Weight Loss and Maintenance. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases 56, pp.441-447.
  5. Keniger, L. et al. (2013) What are the Benefits of Interacting with Nature? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 10, pp.913-935.
  6. Rupprecht, C. et al. (2015) Informal urban green space: A trilingual systematic review of its role for biodiversity and trends in the literature. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 14 (4), pp.883-908.
  7. Active Living Research (2010) The economic benefits of open space, recreation facilities and walkable community design: research synthesis. San Diego, Active Living Research. 
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