Foreign Policy Blogs

Parks, Parklets, and Green Spaces: Improving Health and Other Social Factors

My Dolores Park
I’ve made a recent move to San Francisco, California, and a few days ago, I found myself wandering around The Mission, a neighborhood that is undergoing rapid gentrification.  Apart from the somewhat small but popular Dolores Park (pictured left), there isn’t a lot of green space in the area, in contrast with many other (generally more affluent) neighborhoods of the city, which are teeming with gardens, trees, parks, and general greenery.  Walking along Valencia Street, I stopped at a “parklet” called the Deepistan National Parklet or the Deeplet, a tiny splash of flora on an otherwise barren, busy sidewalk.  As it turns out, Valencia Street has at least four parklets to date, part of the City of San Francisco’s latest effort to add more green, open spaces.  As the SF Planning Department states in the previous link, this project is inspired by greening and pedestrianizing efforts in New York City, such as closing Times Square to vehicles and The High Line, a park built on an abandoned elevated railway on the West Side of Manhattan.  Most of the articles and sites linked above talk about the potential (and realized) economic boost for businesses in pedestrian areas or that open up parklets.  What is not discussed is the importance of access to green spaces for health and well-being.

“While it is true that richer people tend to have both greater access to nature and better physical health outcomes…people of the same socioeconomic status who have greater access to nature have better health outcomes.”

There have been a number of scientific studies that have examined the connections between access to green and open spaces and better (or worse) health.  In a 2010 report* for the (non-profit) National Recreation and Parks Association, Dr. Ming Kuo writes: “the strength, consistency, and convergence of the findings [of whether people living in greener neighborhoods have better health outcomes] are remarkable.”  As Dr. Kuo explains, this applies to social, psychological, and physical health.  In fact, some researchers now talk about the importance of “Vitamin G.” Just as animals held in unfit habitats experience a breakdown in social, psychological, and physical health, human beings in less-green environments have shown to have higher morbidity rates, such as obesity and heart disease, and stress levels, which have been indicated through self-reporting as well as measurements of pulse rates and blood pressure. Areas with fewer green spaces also tend to have higher rates of aggression and violent and other crime.  When I wrote this piece on a study linking mortality and inequality, I noticed that access to open and/or green space was one of six negative social factors that researchers studied and to which they attributed deaths.  In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv also reviews the evidence connecting human health and access to nature and discusses the importance of exposure to nature for childhood development.  Without access to green space, he argues, children suffer from “nature deficit disorder,” which is becoming more common as children opt for video games over playing outside or simply have no green place in which to play.  Higher rates of obesity, attention deficit disorder, and depression are all results.  Interestingly, as Dr. Kuo points out, research has shown that “while it is true that richer people tend to have both greater access to nature and better physical health outcomes…people of the same socioeconomic status who have greater access to nature have better health outcomes.”**  Additionally, greenery doesn’t necessarily need to be big to have an effect.  Even playing slide shows of nature photos (compared with slide shows of city-scapes) made students feel more altruistic and act more generously (study abstract here).  Overall, being in a green space is good for the body and soul and makes us feel more connected to others.

Although  scientific research has established a clear link between accessing green, open spaces and good health and well-being, there is not a strong call in the mainstream health and human rights community for equal access and for a more central focus on green spaces in urban planning.  One of the main conclusions of Dr. Kuo’s report is that to experience a positive effect, green space must be where we spend time: if the park is there but the community does not (or cannot) access it, the benefits are not transferred.  San Franciscan parklets, median beautification projects, and other attempts to weave green spaces into pre-existing urban, paved environments where locals generally walk, therefore, are laudable and should be replicated elsewhere.  Furthermore, more effort must be made to encourage urban dwellers to go to parks and spend more time in green spaces (or, perhaps, to buy a few houseplants).  This is especially true of low-income urban communities, which often do not have the same green spaces available as more affluent areas.

As I have discussed in many earlier posts, efforts to improve health cannot stand on their own.  Poor health is connected to a host of other issues and factors: access to information and technology; gender, race, and income (in)equality; infrastructure and roads; or even where an organization invests its funds, to name a few.  Access to green spaces is another issue to add to the list.  Without holistic interventions that take into account many of the factors that are causing poor health, results will not be as widespread or successful as they should be.  Additionally, with the information and research now available on how accessing green space positively affects physical and mental health as well as negative social factors, such as violent crime, more must be done to routinize the ubiquity of green spaces in urban environments and urban planning projects and to create programs that encourage or even incentivize people to spend time in green spaces.  Increasing the number of green spaces in urban areas also has the added benefit of helping to offset carbon emissions.  Foremost, we must begin with lower-income communities and other areas where the percentage of green spaces is unequal.  With research and experience pointing to the economic, social, health, and environmental rewards of more green spaces, it makes little sense that more people in the health and human rights community do not demand greater change.


*Although I recommend reading Dr. Kuo’s full report, which is well-written, accessible to the layperson (I had no trouble with it), and has interesting suggestions for how to create more green spaces, a good overview can be found here

** Emphasis by source, not this author.

Original header photo here, by soupstance, CC BY.



Julia Robinson
Julia Robinson

Julia Robinson has worked in South Africa at an NGO that helps to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV and in Sierra Leone for an organization that provides surgeries, medical care, and support to women suffering from obstetric fistula. She is interested in human rights, global health, social justice, and innovative, unconventional solutions to global issues. Julia lives in San Francisco, where she works for a sustainability and corporate social responsibility non-profit. She has a BA in African History from Columbia University.