Open parks and green spaces may hold untold health benefits, Farouq Manji writes.
When you think of New York City, you are likely to think of Central Park. Dublin has St Stephen’s Green, Paris has the Luxemborg and Copenhagen, the Tivoli Gardens.
Large, open, green spaces figure prominently in our psyche when we think of major urban centres. They offer a refuge from the tumult of the city – fresh air, unencumbered of pollution and noise; clear avenues of sunshine to warm our skin. It is easy to understand why these places are so memorable. They make us feel good. Entry is largely gratis – open and available to anyone, regardless of social status or income. And research indicates that they may be good for you as well.
A recent study indicates that green spaces located in the heart of cities can reduce the health gap between the rich and poor. Researchers at two Scottish universities looked at the health records of more than 366,000 people who died between 2001 and 2005. Upon their analysis, they discovered that even the smallest green spaces near homes significantly reduce their risk of fatal diseases.
Environments that promote good health might be crucial in the fight to reduce health inequalities
In some cases, the ‘health gap’ in those studied was nearly halved if they were surrounded by parks. The effect was particularly clear in conditions involving cardiovascular disease: strokes, heart attacks and blood pressure. In all countries, there exists a broad range of health inequalities. These may stem from social differences, income, access to health care or other conditions. These inequalities are often difficult to tackle – but adding parks may prove to be an effective method to do so.
The study found that the health benefits of green spaces did not change between different social groups, meaning it had a positive effect on the rich and poor alike. Thus, the addition Healthof parks in socially deprived areas carries the real potential to reduce the health inequalities among different social classes.
Green parks may render their positive effects in numerous ways. They encourage people to be more active, and even small increases in exercise can be beneficial. Trees and shrubbery help filter the air pollution. And the relaxing nature of the area may also help reduce stress levels.
The compelling evidence of this study perhaps reinforces what is already accepted as common sense, however it attempts to scientifically quantify the impact of selective urban planning on personal health. Researchers Dr Richard Mitchell and Dr Frank Popham point out that their data clearly suggests that “environments that promote good health might be crucial in the fight to reduce health inequalities.”
A noted example of this phenomenon can be seen in the Al-Azhar Park of Cairo, Egypt. Located in the heart of Cairo, it has become a ‘green lung’ in a city where, before the parks existence, the park space per person was calculated to be a mere footprint. The Al-Azhar park serves to emphasise the importance of strategic urban planning in those cities able to do so.
The ready availability of parks and green spaces clearly hold incredible benefits – and as cities grow, so too should their parks, forests and lungs.