In the classic computer game Civilization, there were a number of strategies for improving the health and happiness of those under your charge. Adding new parks was one of the most effective — few improvements could boost your popularity ratings faster.
Of course, it was just a game. And the original creators had little to no experience in urban planning. However, recent academic research suggests that the game’s creators were on to something big. Public parks not only make people happier — they also help:
- Reduce aggression and mental fatigue. According to the Journal of Environmental Psychology, “park-like” surroundings can actually boost feelings of well-being and calm — especially when these green spaces are adjacent to residential neighborhoods.
- Reduce violent crime. Contrary to popular belief, parks are not a breeding ground for criminal behavior — they’re a proven and cost-effective impediment to illegal activity. In fact, scientists at the University of Illinois discovered that adding more green spaces to urban environments can help reduce crime by as much as 50 percent.
- Increase social cohesion. Well-maintained parks can act as natural gathering places where community stakeholders form stronger social bonds. These ties have been shown to produce safer, healthier neighborhoods.
The mere existence of a public park confers all of these advantages. But by implementing the five strategies below, you can dramatically boost the health-related benefits of your urban planning efforts.
1. Careful Park Maintenance Is Essential
Regular maintenance and landscaping are critical components for success. When the bushes are pruned, the grass is cut, and the trees are manicured, this sends a powerful signal to the community that someone cares. As a result, more people get involved, helping to keep the entire neighborhood cleaner and safer.
Known as the Broken Windows Theory, this basic concept has been tested and proven time and time again.
Bonus Tip: Careful consideration should go into the plants you use:
- Low-maintenance trees and shrubs can dramatically reduce long-term landscaping costs.
- Low pollen plants can help reduce seasonal allergies (a major health benefit).
2. Design Your Park for Social Gatherings
Parks offer more than just a “natural” escape from crowded urban life. They also serve as meeting points for picnics, school trips and family gatherings.
This is especially true if you outfit your park with strategically placed shelters that protect visitors from the elements. When designing your community’s park, be sure to include:
- Eating areas (preferably covered)
- Barbecue pits
- Playgrounds (for families)
- Athletic fields (for larger groups)
Bonus Tip: Many cities host events throughout the year to make optimal use of these in-park gathering spots. Doing this results in less traffic congestion and fewer disruptions in downtown areas.
3. Include a Dedicated Dog Park
Fresh air, exercise and green spaces are great for dogs (and their owners). They help to create active, healthier lifestyles for pet and parent alike. This is especially true in crowded urban environments where cramped apartments and limited backyard spaces are the norm.
But dog parks benefit the general public as well, because they help reduce the likelihood of dogs running off-leash in other parts of the community.
Bonus Tip: If you have the space and budget, a dedicated dog park is ideal. But if resources are limited, consider sectioning off a portion of an existing park instead.
4. Include Exercise Equipment
Sedentary lifestyles and obesity are becoming more mainstream across America. In fact, some have likened this trend to a health epidemic comparable to smoking:
- Adults increasingly spend long hours at desk jobs (followed by hours of television).
- An alarming percentage of children receive little to no exercise (thanks to video games and, yes, television).
For those who can afford them, gyms represent an excellent way to combat this trend. But outfitting your city’s public parks with exercise stations is arguably more effective — especially since everyone in the community can use them (regardless of socioeconomic status).
Jungle gyms, pull-up bars and athletic fields are all affordable improvements that can lead to healthier communities.
Bonus Tip: Don’t overlook the many benefits of jogging trails and dedicated bike lanes. They’re relatively low maintenance and can provide hours of free and safe exercise for members of the community.
5. Increase Environmental Awareness
Environmental health and personal health go hand-in-hand, and public parks represent a great opportunity to improve both.
- Help people appreciate natural beauty by labeling different plants and trees with informative placards.
- Include recycling stations throughout the park with dedicated bins for plastics, paper and glass. If your city doesn’t have a recycling program, parks are a good place to start before scaling up.
- Sponsor park-wide cleanups that involve everyone within the community (see the Broken Windows Theory in Tip #1).
Bonus Tip: For many urban dwellers, parks are the only exposure they have to natural beauty. If you’re serious about promoting environmental awareness and community health, consider making the local park a central pillar of your city’s green efforts.
Environmental, Health and Financial Payback Periods of Parks
Building and maintaining parks requires money. And many urban planners naturally view the entire process as a cost — a line-item expense that you can keep or remove, depending on that year’s budget.
But a well-maintained public park is actually an investment — one that pays for itself very quickly. Imagine how much money you could save by reducing city crime by 50 percent. Think about the medical costs associated with obesity or poor air quality.
And that’s if you’re talking about financial benefits. If you look at parks through the lenses of the environment or public health, the long-term benefits are even greater:
- Safer communities
- Stronger social cohesion
- Greater environmental awareness
- Healthier citizens
- Happier dogs (and dog-owners)
These benefits are immediate and will continue paying ecological and health dividends for decades to come. But by implementing the five strategies outlined above, you can boost the ROI of your urban planning investments and enjoy even greater rewards.