Green space & parks

Evidence Rating  
Some Evidence
Evidence rating: Some Evidence

Strategies with this rating are likely to work, but further research is needed to confirm effects. These strategies have been tested more than once and results trend positive overall.

Health Factors  

Green space typically refers to land with natural vegetation, including grass, trees, and other plants, that is open and accessible to the public. Green spaces can include parks, walkable streets with trees and plantings, planted lots, and gardens1. Communities, especially urban communities, can increase green space by creating new parks or open spaces, renovating or enhancing under-used recreation areas, or rehabilitating vacant lots, abandoned infrastructure, or brownfields. Rails to trails programs, brownfield redevelopment, community gardens, and park enhancements are examples of efforts to increase recreational green space, trails, and parks. Such efforts can be applied to spaces accessible by foot, bike, and other types of transportation.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased physical activity

  • Improved mental health

  • Improved health outcomes

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Improved well-being

  • Reduced stress

  • Reduced obesity rates

  • Reduced urban heat island effects

  • Reduced run-off

  • Reduced crime

What does the research say about effectiveness? This strategy is rated some evidence.

There is some evidence that increasing green space and parks increases physical activity2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, especially among children and adolescents10, 11, 12. Green space exposure also improves aspects of mental health and physical health1, 13, 14, 15 and living near more green space is associated with reduced adult mortality1, 16. Additional evidence is needed to confirm effects2 and determine how much green space exposure is most beneficial and for which populations by age, race or ethnicity, and region13.

Green space exposure can increase positive feelings and outlook, decrease fatigue and tension13, and can provide mental health benefits, including reduced depressive symptoms, reduced stress, and improved mental well-being15, 17. Green space is associated with positive effects on attention and mood2. Access to green space is strongly associated with improved mental well-being for children18. Living near green spaces has also been associated with improved ADHD symptoms19.

Green space exposure is associated with improved physical health outcomes, such as reduced heart rate13; reduced blood pressure and incidence of diabetes and stroke; improved pregnancy outcomes, such as for pre-term births and healthy birth weight; and increased self-reported good health1. Among adults, residential green space has been associated with reduced risk of mortality from cardiovascular diseases20. Living in greener areas appears to lower all-cause mortality among adults, which may be more due to the improved physical environment through reduced air pollution, noise, and lower temperatures, than due to access to places for physical activity16. A U.S.-based study suggests overall greenness in cities is associated with reduced all-cause mortality among older adults (65 and older)21. Living in neighborhoods with a high density of trees is also associated with improved health perceptions and health outcomes22.

Urban green space exposure can increase physical activity, particularly when green spaces are less than 1km from individuals’ homes, neighborhoods have more green space overall, and green spaces are accessible using public transit15. Living in close proximity to green space and parks has been shown to lower childhood obesity rates, with larger effects for boys than girls10, and to increase physical activity among both boys and girls4, 11. Turning green space into community parks is associated with increased vigorous physical activity in parks, especially among adolescent males, and reduced physical activity in non-park zones, such as streets and parking lots23. Children’s moderate to vigorous physical activity levels appear to be greater outdoors than indoors24. Access to green space can also increase physical activity levels for adults2, 6, 25. Involving community groups in playground design selection, installation, and maintenance significantly increases park utilization and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity one year after renovations compared to renovations without community group involvement3. Proximity to parks is more strongly associated with leisure time physical activity and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity than park size26.

Increasing green space, parks, and trails can have additional social and environmental benefits for communities19. The physical environment has been shown to affect human behavior; high temperatures, noise, and crowding are associated with increased aggression and violence, while contact with nature and green spaces is associated with reduced aggression and violence27. Greening vacant lots can reduce crime, reduce firearm violence, and increase safety17, 28. Green space and increasing the greenness of cities is associated with reduced urban heat island effects29. Adding street trees in urban areas and green built interventions such as rain gardens or green roofs for storm water management appears to have positive environmental effects, including increased biodiversity and reduced illegal dumping17. Increasing green space in cities can increase permeability and may reduce stormwater run-off; however, there is insufficient evidence regarding effects on flooding risks and larger, more widespread green space initiatives are likely needed to affect urban flooding29. Experts recommend city planners develop climate action plans to ensure greening efforts are appropriate for the climate, water sources, level of urbanization, and local landscape, and to track local greenness over time21. Policymakers should consider implementing additional policies to prevent any unintended social and environmental consequences of increasing green spaces, such as gentrification and unequal access within the neighborhood, and increased air pollution if the increased tree canopy reduces air circulation over busy roads, especially those used frequently by diesel-powered vehicles17.

Physical changes to parks, greenways, and trails accompanied by a promotion or marketing program appear to increase physical activity more than physical changes alone9, 17. Maintenance, perceived security, and the activities available and promoted to residents may play a greater role in beneficial outcomes than the presence of green space alone15. More and varied park facilities are associated with greater physical activity while using parks30, especially when facility renovations cater to all ages. Advertising park programming, particularly in neighborhoods with lower incomes, offering group exercise opportunities, such as sports leagues or walking clubs, and adding facilities to attract older adults, such as walking loops, can also increase park use for moderate-to-vigorous physical activity31. A survey of metropolitan areas suggests parks with four or more different recreational facilities are associated with greater perceptions of safety among neighborhood residents32. Enhancing parks with outdoor exercise equipment can increase physical activity levels and new park users, and appears to be a cost-effective approach in densely populated areas with limited exercise facilities33.

How could this strategy advance health equity? This strategy is rated potential to decrease disparities: supported by some evidence.

There is some evidence that increasing green space and parks has the potential to decrease disparities in physical and mental health outcomes between individuals with low and high socioeconomic status49. Public green space and parks have greater benefits for individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds compared to more affluent individuals49. These greater benefits may be because white individuals and those with more wealth already live in or have access to walkable neighborhoods with more green space, while individuals of color have often been prevented from living in such neighborhoods, for reasons including racist practices in the housing market49. In some circumstances, proximity to green spaces has been shown to reduce socio-economic disparities25, 50, 51.

Associations between green space and physical health appear stronger for women than men, especially for green spaces near one’s home52. In interviews, Latino/a residents of two Chicago neighborhoods with newly-developed green spaces report perceived benefits to health, social interaction, neighborhood aesthetics, and increased safe space for children and youth, but also expressed concerns about crime, rising taxes, and gentrification associated with the new green spaces53. Park location and function, such as whether a park includes active transportation features, may be more strongly associated with neighborhood gentrification than park size43. Parks that serve majority nonwhite populations and those which serve primarily households with lower incomes tend to be smaller and more crowded than parks which do not54.

Studies in Europe show stronger protective effects of green space for individuals with lower socioeconomic backgrounds and for individuals from marginalized racial and ethnic groups, compared to the U.S.49. Experts suggest that this relates to environmental and policy contexts. Studies in Europe show park quality to be more equal across neighborhoods with different socioeconomic levels; governments provide more public services, such as universal health care; and governments may be more likely to invest in parks as a health-supporting measure. In comparison, U.S. studies suggest individuals of color, with lower socioeconomic backgrounds, experience police harassment and discrimination in parks. Experts recommend that green space initiatives in the U.S. be integrated with those focused on housing, health care, and removal of environmental health hazards from neighborhoods of color. More research is also needed on the effects of green space in neighborhoods with mixed incomes and wealth levels, including gentrifying neighborhoods, and regarding experiences of Indigenous people49.

There is less tree canopy cover in urban neighborhoods with lower incomes and in neighborhoods with more individuals of color55, 56. Studies of over 150 cities in the U.S. find strong associations between neighborhoods that experience systemic racial discrimination, higher neighborhood temperatures57, 58, and less tree canopy cover59. Metro areas given low grades when redlining was in practice, have about half the tree canopy cover compared to high-graded areas today. The disparity in tree cover contributes to increased and disproportionate exposure to extreme heat, particularly among Black and Hispanic communities57, and such exposure is dangerous for health57, 58. Experts recommend that municipalities prioritize equity considerations in the management of urban trees and green space, as well as individual neighborhoods’ input and preferences55. Experts also recommend developing citywide equity frameworks to guide park priorities and investments in ways that involve and sustainably benefit communities historically not engaged; efforts can include adopting both Spanish and English language park advisory committees60.

What is the relevant historical background?

Organizations in cities have promoted green spaces and parks since at least the 1800s, suggesting that preserving, creating, and making such spaces more accessible can benefit people’s health1. However, there are numerous examples of U.S. cities and their developers displacing people of color to create public park space, including in present-day Central Park. From 1825-1857, Seneca Village was a community of free Black people, many of whom owned land, which New York City took through eminent domain in 1857 when developers created Central Park61.

Throughout U.S. history, discriminatory housing, lending, and exclusionary zoning policies entrenched racial residential segregation and concentrated poverty62, 63. The built environment in under-resourced communities is a significant contributor to health inequities for people of color with low incomes64, 65, 66. Disinvestment in and unequal distribution of recreational facilities, parks, and green space means that communities with low incomes and communities of color have fewer places to engage in outdoor activities, have less access to cooling shade, and experience poorer air quality67, 68. In the present day, formerly redlined neighborhoods remain more likely to include vacant lots and blighted properties, older homes in poor condition, coal-fired power plants, hazardous waste disposal sites, and other health risks69. Redlining and other discriminatory practices, such as racially biased credit evaluation, also influenced which neighborhoods could invest in trees, parks, and environmental amenities, and determined where environmental hazards would be located. For example, in Baltimore, Maryland, when redlining was in place, the neighborhoods graded D and labeled undesirable had more Black residents, dense and lower quality housing, and more exposure to noise and pollution. Areas graded A and labeled desirable had wealthier residents and more single-family homes on larger lots with room for trees; residents in these areas could more easily accumulate wealth and political power to add and maintain private and public green space, creating parks and planting residential and street trees. Today these areas have more tree canopy cover than formerly redlined neighborhoods59.

In the 1920s and 1940s, municipal public pools became more popular and were often featured components of public parks. Planners proposed their development as benefiting individuals’ health and offering heat respite in urban areas; however, the pools were usually built as segregated spaces or in segregated neighborhoods. Civil rights activists led efforts in the 1940s and 1950s to desegregate public pools and beaches. White people sometimes responded with violence to prevent Black individuals from using these recreational spaces or stopped using the spaces when they were desegregated, leading them to close due to low attendance. For example, the Fairground Park pool in St. Louis, Missouri held around 10,000 individuals and was designated whites-only; it closed in 1956, a few years after the city integrated it. At the same time, many white families were moving from city centers to the surrounding suburbs where they could install and use private pools70. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, local governments that did not support desegregation took steps to prevent individuals of color from using public park spaces, by closing or defunding recreation programs, filling city pools with concrete, and leasing city golf courses and pools to organizations which would manage them as exclusive members-only spaces71.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, parks and green spaces gained importance as comparatively safe gathering and recreational spaces. However, in New York City, police appear to have issued more citations to Black residents, compared to others, for violating regulations for physical distancing57. Park and green space closures were also more likely for small parks or those dominated by playgrounds or sports courts in which physical distancing was difficult; experts warned that closures could worsen inequities in communities with fewer green spaces, especially if public transit was also closed or limited72.

More people are living in urban areas than in previous decades, with 8 in 10 individuals predicted to live in cities by 205015.

Equity Considerations
  • How does your community engage neighborhood residents, especially residents of color and those with low incomes, in the planning and development of green spaces, parks, and street tree planting initiatives? Do those leading initiatives, including planning programs and activities in green spaces, represent the local community?
  • What neighborhoods in your community have vacant lots, brownfields, abandoned infrastructure, or under-used recreation areas that could be transformed into vibrant green spaces, trails, or parks? How are you considering the local climate, as well as assessing opportunities to mitigate climate change, as part of greening initiatives?
  • What city planning groups or community organizations are involved in identifying neighborhoods with fewer green spaces and greater need for greening initiatives? How are funds raised and allocated for greening initiatives in your community?
  • What partnerships could help develop and support community-wide greening initiatives to increase green space and trees throughout formerly redlined neighborhoods? What additional anti-displacement policies can your community adopt to protect residents of those neighborhoods from gentrification and prevent unequal access to newly implemented green spaces and parks?
  • What is the local policing approach to public spaces, such as parks?
Implementation Examples

The 2022 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act demonstrated renewed federal support for green space and parks34, 35, 36. Green space and greening initiatives through brownfields redevelopment37, community gardens38, and Rails to Trails programs are implemented to some degree in all 50 states39. Approaches to funding initiatives can vary: the Mississippi state legislature authorized the city of Pascagoula to use prepared food tax revenue to implement a comprehensive parks and recreation master plan40, 41. The 10 Minute Walk enlists city mayors in efforts to ensure all city residents have a park within a 10-minute walk of their homes and also offers technical assistance grants42.

Several cities across the U.S. are implementing anti-displacement strategies as part of park projects to limit gentrification. Examples of anti-displacement strategies include services for renters and homeowners with low incomes and incentivizing an adequate number of affordable housing units in new developments nearby43. Strategies should ensure affordable housing is available long-term, such as through community land trusts, in which a nonprofit owns the land and homes on it are required to be bought and sold at affordable rates44. Greener Parks for Health is a framework developed by the National Recreation and Parks Association with guidance for advancing green space initiatives at the federal, state, and local levels, and ensuring initiatives prioritize equity and the environment45. In Milwaukee, watershed restoration plans include park and trail renovations in adjacent neighborhoods46 with direction from residents47. In Richmond, California, the Pogo Park project worked with community residents and local businesses to renew neglected city parks48.

Implementation Resources

Resources with a focus on equity.

City Parks Alliance - City Parks Alliance. Leveraging the power of city parks.

Outdoor Afro - Outdoor Afro. Outdoor Afro celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature.

SRTP-Equity 2018 - Safe Routes to Parks (SRTP). Equity in Safe Routes to Parks. 2018.

TPL-Clarke 2020 - Clarke M, Vest G. The toolkit for health, arts, parks & equity. San Francisco: Trust for Public Land (TPL), National Association of County & City Health Officials (NACCHO). 2020.

Eos-Cartier 2021 - Cartier KMS. Growing equity in city green space. Eos. 2021.

City Nature - City Nature. Stanford University.

NPS-Workbook - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Park Service. Parks, trails, and health workbook: A tool for planners, parks & recreation professionals, and health practitioners. Washington, DC: National Park Service; 2015. Revised April 2020.

US DHHS-Brownfields - US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS). Redeveloping brownfield and land reuse sites to benefit communities. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), National Brownfields/Land Reuse Health Initiative.

HPBD - Healthy Places by Design (HPBD). Advances community-led action and proven, place-based strategies to ensure health and wellbeing for all.

LHC-Toolkit 2009 - Leadership for Healthy Communities (LHC). Action strategies toolkit: A guide for local and state leaders working to create healthy communities and prevent childhood obesity. Princeton: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF); 2009.

ChangeLab-Parks 2015 - ChangeLab Solutions. Complete parks playbook: The seven elements of a safe, connected, and healthy parks system. 2015.

HealthPartners-CHA - HealthPartners Institute for Education and Research. Community health advisor (CHA): Resource for information on the benefits of evidence-based policies and programs: Helping communities understand, analyze, and model costs.

CDC DNPAO-Data - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Division of Nutrition Physical Activity and Obesity (DNPAO). Nutrition, physical activity and obesity: Data, trends and maps online tool.

LHC-Rockeymoore 2014 - Rockeymoore M, Moscetti C, Fountain A. Rural childhood obesity prevention toolkit. Leadership for Healthy Communities (LHC), Center for Global Policy Solutions, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; 2014.

CDC-Park HIA toolkit - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Healthy places: Parks and trails health impact assessment (HIA) toolkit.

PolicyLink-Brownfields 2003 - PolicyLink: Equitable development toolkit: Brownfields. 2003.

PAS-Zoning 2016 - Planning Advisory Service (PAS). Planning & zoning for health in the built environment. American Planning Association (APA); 2016.


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

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27 Bogar 2016 - Bogar S, Beyer KM. Green space, violence, and crime: A systematic review. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse. 2016;17(2):160-171.

28 Sadatsafavi 2022 - Sadatsafavi H, Sachs NA, Shepley MM, Kondo MC, Barankevich RA. Vacant lot remediation and firearm violence – A meta-analysis and benefit-to-cost evaluation. Landscape and Urban Planning. 2022;218:104281.

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30 Stewart 2019 - Stewart OT, Moudon AV, Littman A, Seto E, Saelens BE. The association between park facilities and the occurrence of physical activity during park visits. Journal of Leisure Research. 2019;49(3-5):217-235.

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33 Cohen 2012 - Cohen DA, Marsh T, Williamson S, Golinelli D, McKenzie TL. Impact and cost-effectiveness of family fitness zones: A natural experiment in urban public parks. Health & Place. 2012;18(1):39-45.

34 White House-Parks 2022 - The White House. Fact sheet: Biden-Harris Administration advances commitment to create more equitable access to parks and nature in communities. 2022.

35 US DOI-Ecosystem Restoration - U.S. Department of the Interior (US DOI). Ecosystem restoration.

36 City Parks Alliance-Park funding 2022 - City Parks Alliance. Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: Park funding sources webinar. 2022.

37 US EPA-Brownfields - US Environmental Protections Agency (US EPA). State brownfields programs.

38 ACGA-Find gardens - American Community Gardening Association (ACGA). Locate your nearest community garden.

39 RTC - Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC). Inspiring movement.

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41 Jackson County 2022 - Jackson County, Mississippi. Comprehensive master plan for parks, recreation, and open space. 2022.

42 10 Minute Walk - 10 Minute Walk. Improving access to parks and green spaces. Trust for Public Land, National Recreation and Park Association, and Urban Land Institute.

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44 Grannis 2021 - Grannis J. Community land = community resilience: How community land trusts can support urban affordable housing and climate initiatives. Washington, DC: Georgetown Climate Center, Georgetown Law; 2021.

45 NRPA-Greener parks - National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). Greener parks for health.

46 SSCHC-Kinnickinnic - Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers (SSCHC). Kinnickinnic River Watershed.

47 SSCHC-KKRNIA - Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers (SSCHC). Kinnickinnic River Neighbors in Action (KKRNIA).

48 Pogo Park - Pogo Park. Building healthy children and communities, one park at a time.

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