Why Parks Matter
Community Health and Wellness
Time spent outdoors enriches our existence. Natural, semi-natural or planted space set aside for human enjoyment and recreation bring families and community together, ultimately improving community health and wellness.
“Urban green spaces may provide key social benefits, including promoting a sense of community, belonging, social engagement, empowerment, and social support.”
Dr. Viniece Jennings
Everyone feels stress. Feelings of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with pressures afflict everyone. Whether it is stress from school, work, family or other daily responsibilities, parks provide a space that is free and accessible to all where residents can relieve their anxiety. According to a recent poll conducted by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), more than half of Americans manage their daily stress by visiting a park for recreational activities. This is especially poignant as Americans are coming to terms with the changes to their lives brought on by COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has flagged mental health as a top concern associated with the recent COVID-19 outbreak. Long periods of uncertainty and tension create strain on the body resulting in serious health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and anxiety. “Parks are a terrific place to get healthy and relieve stress,” said Barbara Tulipane, NRPA president and CEO. “Everyone, no matter their age, should take advantage of the physical and mental health benefits that parks provide.”
Studies have proven that individuals with no or few social contacts suffer from poor overall health, both mental and physical. Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death on par with the effects of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community, immigrants and the elderly are at particular risk of experiencing the ill effects of loneliness and social isolation. Parks offer gathering spaces for the community, creating a space anyone can feel comfortable relaxing and interacting with those around them.
“Gathering with friends, family or pets at a local park among Americans’ top stress busters”
National Recreation and Park Association
Beyond the aesthetic benefits, parks combat noise pollution. The physiological and mental impact of noise pollution and auditory fatigue caused by traffic, trains and other mechanical equipment has been proven to directly cause cardiovascular stress, sleep disorders and cognitive dysfunction, while quiet peaceful environments improve health and happiness. Trees are a natural, scenic and effective way to subdue road noise; trees make beautiful and effective sound barriers. Green, shady environments promote peace and quiet that aid in the mental health and destressing of the community as a whole.
People seek out parks because they provide contact with the natural environment and a social environment which offers opportunities for meeting with friends, watching others and being seen. This contact with our community helps us feel comfortable and secure.
Well designed parks offer a sense of security for those walking its paths and playing on its playgrounds. Having sight lines, lights, and clear instructional signage increases this feeling of wellbeing. Parks that are well maintained and cared for, that are free from vandalism, litter and graffiti all bring a sense of trust in park visitors. Patrons are confident in their parks when they are able to easily orient themselves by viewing maps and seeing clear markings.
Working out and exercising can feel like a chore, especially in Texas where the sun and heat makes being outside uncomfortable for a large portion of the year. With natural shade, strategically placed fitness equipment and Recreation lead fitness classes, our community can enjoy getting fit. Physical activity has a direct impact on lifespan, increasing the average life expectancy by as much as two years according to the CDC. Studies have shown that close proximity to a public park and community fitness equipment increase the likelihood of people participating in physical activity. Through our Parks, Recreation and Open Space Master Plan, the Parks & Recreation Department aims to provide a wider variety of exercise equipment and trails, allowing for people of all ages to live a healthier lifestyle.
By providing a variety of amenities in parks, as well as modifying the natural environment to create diverse landscape elements and textures, the community is more inclined to engage in physical activity. Research has proven that participating in physical activity in green spaces not only encourages participants to spend longer working out, but also has more mental health benefits over non-green spaces. By participating in a regular exercise routine, not only will participants reap the physical benefits, but will decrease levels of depression, anxiety, ADHD and more. Those who spend time in parks also receive more Vitamin D from the sun, which improves memory, helps regulate sleep cycles and boosts mood. In a culture that spends the majority or our time indoors using technology, having an outlet such as public parks, allows for more access to health benefits we would otherwise be missing.
The benefits of outside equipment and park trails are not only targeting your heart and your brain, but also the bones, ligaments, nerves and joints in your body. The ParksRX Movement, founded in 2013, targets the advantages of physical activities in parks and nature as prescriptions to common ailments. For example, walking is a low impact, easy form of exercise often prescribed by the ParksRX movement for diabetes and heart conditions. By providing walking and hiking trails throughout our parks, our community can take advantage of this simple heart healthy exercise that acts as an introduction to more intensive exercise routines.
Not only is the ParksRX movement increasing in popularity, but Physical Therapists consistently take advantage of parks to help their patients work on their muscle strength and agility. During physical therapy exercises, patients utilize equipment and open space, both of which can and should be provided in parks free of charge, in order to ensure all community members have equitable access to these health benefits. If the community were to rely on access to the Elgin Recreation Center or private gyms, they would be negatively impacted by both cost and restrictive hours of operation. Being able to go outside and become active in the park allows people to use their entire body on their own schedule, free of charge.
Physical and mental health issues do not discriminate; all members of the community can benefit from access to safe, free equipment and space where they can come together with one another for socialization and exercise. Parks and open space systems are crucial to a functional society; people rely on the parks for play time, exercise, sports, relaxation, human interaction and so much more. As the world changes, our parks need to change with it to accommodate the public’s needs. As one town, one team and one family there is only room for improvements.
Economic Impact of Local Parks
Not only do parks provide essential services to their communities, but they are also powerful engines of economic activity. A new report issued by the National Recreation and Park Association, in partnership with the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, demonstrates the vast economic impact of local parks nationwide. Operations and capital spending for local parks generates more than $166 billion dollars in economic activity and supports more than 1.1 million jobs nationwide. Specifically in Texas, parks generated $8,703,708,284 in transactions in 2017.
This is a conservative estimate that does not capture parks’ other economic benefits including:
- Higher real estate values
- Health and wellness benefits
- Conservation/Resiliency benefits
- Economic development
There are many ways to take advantage of the economic benefits of public park land. Following the “10-minutes’ Walk to a Park” standard not only improves the lives of the citizens, but also increases the property value of homes in the area. Studies consistently show that having a park nearby has a positive impact on the market value of a home. As graphed by Dr. John Crompton of A&M University, Zone A, or the zone closest to parks, has the highest increase in property value whereas Zone C, the farthest away from the park, has the lowest percentage increase in property value. By this evidence, the closer you are to a local park the higher the market value of your house will be.
The quality of the park also can have a positive impact on the market value of a home. For example, the larger the park is the bigger impact it will make. Studies even show that within neighborhood communities, a playground or park as an amenity will allow the market value of the houses to increase. As a result of increasing the property value, the city will receive an increase in tax revenue, allowing funds to be redirected back into the improvement of community parks for future generations.
“Public parks are often the "engine" that drives tourism in many communities. Often many tourists come to a city to see the landmarks, scenery, and various other attractions which in many cases are the local parks”.
American Planning Association
Homeowners and locals are not the only demographic targeted by parks. Parks and open spaces provide a space for visitors to congregate, relax, see the sites and to get a feel for what the surrounding community is like. The City of Elgin is only increasing in popularity for both new residents and visitors as Austin grows in size. Parks can act as that common ground between newcomers and long-term residents. By having parks that are rooted in their space and community, visitors can feel the vibrancy of the city surrounding them and develop an appreciation for the people and space around them. One of New York’s main attractions is Central Park, a part of the New York City park system that serves the residents of the city, but also draws tourists from around the world. Imagine that same draw and sense of place being generated by community parks within Elgin.
Elgin, Texas is featured in numerous publications and is highlighted on tourist routes such as the 290 BBQ Trail and attracts thousands of visitors a year for our Hogeye and Western Days Festivals. Improving the sites of our numerous festivals will turn our parks in to destinations in their own right. Currently many Bastrop County residents travel to Elgin to use the Elgin Recreation Center, participate in our events and use our amenities. As we foster this behavior, these visitors will continue to spend money in town at small businesses and restaurants, such as those downtown. Encouraging tourism in our city will continue to bring economic growth and other benefits to our town.
Park value for things such as team sports being played, walking, jogging, sitting, picnicking and so many more can also be calculated. Although these activities are free to patrons in our parks, they still possess an inherent value which can be calculating by estimating how much it would cost at a private facility. Here you are not calculating the income but the savings.
To calculate this value use a method called “Unit Day Value”, which assigns a monetary value to the action that is being evaluated. For example, walking in the park would cost $2.00 and playing basketball would cost $4.00. Then, in a given amount of time, count how many people partook in each activity to calculate your savings. Continuing our example, if three people walked and ten people played basketball, then the total savings for the day would be $46.00.
Direct monetary investment from tourism and revenue from property values are easily calculated, but parks also provide the community with a vast amount of indirect value as well, such as the decrease in air pollution, increase in human health, and the management of the storm water.
“A park’s plants absorb air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, and some particulates, reducing the impacts they have on peoples’ cardiovascular and respiratory systems”
Having parks with mature trees throughout the community reduces the air pollution that residents are faced with. For a community such as Elgin, Texas, this becomes especially poignant when looking at the added commuters to Austin and the increased traffic on HWY 290 and HWY 95. This reduction in air pollution provides citizens with clean air to breathe and decreases medical bills associated with respiratory issues. Other medical bills are reduced when communities have access to local parks with fitness amenities such as walking trails and fitness equipment. On average, maintaining a healthy weight saves a person $1,500 on healthcare a year. As a result of the increase in exercise there will be a decrease in the cost of medical bills and insurance.
Local parks promote societal cohesion by allowing the community to program and design many social events that bring the whole community to come together. Many studies have shown that having a stronger knit community allows for it to become more successful. Having the community cohesion through a club, church, school, or even Recreation Center will add to the value of the surrounding neighborhood. Simple amenities such as a playground, picnic table or barbeque pit act as spaces for the community to gather, creating more opportunities for low stress interactions, promoting understanding and communication.
The social and physical impacts on the community members are not the only direct cause of economic benefits derived from parks. Having parks in a city will also help maintain and retain rainwater and floodwaters. Having only impermeable surfaces such as sidewalks, asphalt, and rooftops will pollute our natural source of water and cause flooding. When rainwater hits the ground and rooftops it picks up the pollutants and garbage on the streets then follows directly into our waterways or water treatment plants. Parks provide porous ground that aids in water purification, as well as acting as a space for excess water to drain into the earth to prevent flooding. Excess water seeps into the vegetation to help the park stay green. Having a park and green space to soak up any extra water will allow the city's water management to be much smaller which then will save the city money.
By measuring direct revenue and the savings associated with activities performed in public parks, the cost of these quality of life improvements becomes justifiable and necessary. In conclusion having high quality, large, open parks in a community will only bring a positive impact on our economy and the overall community.