Studies show that there is a link between the built environment and the physical, social, and economic health of a community. For the last half-century, we have been building vehicle-dependent environments that foster obesity, poor health, social isolation, high costs of infrastructure, and focus away from our downtown cores. Sprawling land use patterns have altered our travel behavior, lead to physical inactivity, and contributed to soaring costs for health care and investments in our transportation system. Planning for parks and recreation facilities can promote active lifestyles, build healthy communities, and lower health care and transportation costs. The National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) has created a presentation that highlights the many benefits of well-planned parks.
Active transportation is defined as “human-powered modes of transportation.” Traditionally, transportation polices have focused on automobiles. This has led to sprawling land-use patterns, lack of walkable infrastructure, compartmentalized built environments, less-active lifestyles, and greater incidence of chronic obesity and diseases. Planning for active transportation and parks and recreation infrastructure are complementary initiatives. Trails, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and shared-use paths provide opportunities for people to walk, bike, take non-motorized transportation in safe places.
A report issued by NRPA quantifies the contribution of public parks to the physical activity and health of community residents. It affirms that physical activity is critical to good health, and parks provide a venue in which physical activity can occur. In addition, a report on The Health Benefits of Parks by the Trust for Public Land provides strong evidence that people exercise more when they have access to parks. Regular physical activity can improve health and reduce the risk of diseases such as heart disease, hypertension, colon cancer, and diabetes. Exercise and active lifestyles can also provide psychological benefits, improve mental health, and alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Studies show that well-planned parks and recreation systems can serve as a catalyst for economic development. Access to parks and recreation facilities and active transportation infrastructure can increase property values, foster job creation, and provide a foundation for place-based economic development. According to a report by the NRPA and the American Planning Association (APA) on The Role of Parks in Shaping Successful Cities, parks can attract consumers to nearby downtown regions, spur the opening of local restaurants, and increase tourism. Measuring the economic benefits of well-planned parks systems can be difficult. However, the Trust for Public Land has created a guide for Measuring the Economic Value of a City Park System that enumerates those benefits in terms of seven major factors—property value, tourism, direct use, health, community cohesion, clean water, and clean air.
Parks and recreation infrastructure and facilities promotes conservation and environmental sustainability. According to a report by the NPRA, parks facilities conserve natural resources and wildlife habitat, protect air and water quality, and preserve open space for current and future generations. Through stewardship activities, parks can involve the public in conservation efforts and increase awareness of environmental needs. Parks and open space conserves scenic vistas, maintains healthy ecosystems, and provides carbon‐reducing sustainable landscapes.
Social and Equity Benefits
Parks and recreation facilities also provide social and equity benefits for community members. According to an analysis of social equity and parks conducted by NPRA, public parks provide equal access to all citizens regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or ability. Parks and recreation facilities can foster community pride, bring people together, create destination-oriented places, and connect people to each other and nature. “Pocket parks” are small outdoor spaces, often in urban areas, that provide active recreation opportunities for residents—including children—in underserved areas. According to an issue brief on pocket parks by the National Recreation and Park Association, successful parks have four key qualities. They are accessible, allow people to engage in activities, comfortable, and sociable places. These small parks may be created by transforming vacant lots, rooftops, or previously hardscaped areas along sidewalks and active transportation routes.