With the Alberta Government planning to get rid of a long list of provincial parks of various forms, I thought it was worth revisiting the benefits of parks. There are multiple types of parks that vary in the balance between conservation and human recreation. But if the presence of a tree on my street can have a significant benefit on my life, then it makes sense that green spaces of various forms are also of benefit.
There are all sorts of environmental and ecological reasons that we need a network of protected areas. But that isn’t what this post is about. This post is about why we as humans need parks. Before I get too far, I’d like to mention that a park doesn’t have to mean no human interference, but that it may require a more respectful relationship akin to that which many Indigenous peoples have with nature. The idea of Indigenous Protected Areas is a relatively new one, but one that needs to be considered when we look at all types of natural areas.
Romagosa, Eagles, and Lemieux (2015) state that environmental degradation such as air and water pollution and landscape destruction are frequently associated with poor human health. On the other hand, environmental protection benefits human health. I can’t get through a day without seeing something referring to how unhealthy populations are becoming. Inactivity, poor diet, and high stress have had us as a society in a tailspin for a while and one tool we have to battle it is through healthy natural areas. A growing body of research, from multiple disciplines, indicate that “parks and other forms of protected areas contribute significantly to human health and well-being by providing access to the natural environment” (p. 71) and yet we continue to ignore the psychological and physical benefits of these areas. There are also significant benefits from the ecosystem services provided by natural areas such as water purification, soil stabilization, carbon sequestration, and air purification that also tend to be undocumented and unacknowledged.
Just a few of the human health benefits from exposure to nature include faster recovery from surgery (Ulrich, 1991), improved ability to concentrate (Kuo, 2001), and lower self reported stress (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). Romagosa, Eagles, and Lemieux also report that several studies have found that exercise done in natural settings like parks rather than along urban streets is actually more beneficial because it contributes more significantly to relief of anxiety and depression.
Okay, so time in nature is good but does that mean that all nature is equal. It doesn’t matter if we have provincial areas because, in Edmonton at least, we have lots of urban natural areas? As an aside, Edmonton’s river valley is spectacular. Well urban areas are more accessible and they often have fairly decent facilities and infrastructure but protected natural areas have higher biodiversity which has benefits for our environmental well being, they are better able to fulfill a social need for connection with nature because they are representative of the natural environment, and they typically offer higher levels of calm and silence which contributes to our psychological and spiritual well-being (Romagosa et al).
The essential role of parks in “preserving, maintaining, and promoting the health of the humans as well as that of their environment” (Maller et al, as cited in Romagosa et al, p. 74) still needs to be recognized. Supporting parks and increasing access to parks through social programming will contribute to the overall health of a population. As we all deal with increasingly urbanized lives, we need to make sure that everyone has more access to nature, not less and provincial and national parks and other natural areas need to be part of that plan.