Green space & parks

Communities can increase green space and parks 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.

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Increased physical activity

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Reduced obesity rates

  • Improved mental health

  • Reduced crime

  • Reduced stress

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is some evidence that increasing green space and parks increases physical activity (Kondo 2018, Slater 2016a, Ding 2011*, Cohen 2019, Blanck 2012*, Bassett 2013*, AHA-Mozaffarian 2012, Hunter 2015*), especially among children and adolescents (Wolch 2011*, Cohen 2006, Almanza 2012). Additional evidence is needed to confirm effects (Kondo 2018).

Living in close proximity to green space and parks has been shown to lower childhood obesity rates, with larger effects for boys than girls (Wolch 2011*), and to increase physical activity among both boys and girls (Cohen 2006, Ding 2011*). 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 lots (King 2015a*). Children’s moderate to vigorous physical activity levels appear to be greater outdoors than indoors (Dunton 2011). Access to green space is also strongly associated with improved mental well-being for children (Vanaken 2018).

Access to green space can increase physical activity levels for adults (Kondo 2018, Blanck 2012*, Tzoulas 2007*). Proximity to parks is more strongly associated with leisure time physical activity and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity than park size (Schipperijn 2017). Among adults, residential green space has been associated with reduced risk of mortality from cardiovascular diseases (Gascon 2016*), although overall effects on mortality outcomes appear to be mixed. Green space is also associated with positive effects on attention and mood (Kondo 2018).

Increasing green space, parks, and trails can have additional environmental and social benefits for communities (Sallis 2015). In some circumstances, proximity to green spaces has been shown to reduce socio-economic disparities, and has been associated with lower stress (Mitchell 2008*, Tzoulas 2007*, Shores 2008*), improved ADHD symptoms and mental health (Sallis 2015), and reductions in domestic violence and other crimes (UN IL-LHHL). Living in neighborhoods with a high density of trees is also associated with improved health perceptions and health outcomes (Kardan 2015).

Experts 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 committees (Urban-Eldridge 2019). 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 involvement (Slater 2016a). 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 spaces (Fernandez 2019*). Park location and function, such as whether a park includes active transportation features, may be more strongly associated with neighborhood gentrification than park size (Rigolon 2019*).

Increasing green space and parks in conjunction with physical activity programs may be more effective at increasing physical activity levels than increasing green space alone (Hunter 2015*). More and varied park facilities are associated with greater physical activity while using parks (Stewart 2019*), 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 activity (RAND-Cohen 2018). A survey of metropolitan areas suggests parks with four or more different recreational facilities are associated with greater perceptions of safety among neighborhood residents (Lapham 2016*). 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 facilities (Cohen 2012).

A study of 108 cities in the U.S. suggests an association between neighborhoods which have experienced historic racial discrimination practices and higher neighborhood temperatures, due to less green space and tree cover; this appears to contribute to disproportionate exposure to extreme heat (Hoffman 2020).

Impact on Disparities

No impact on disparities likely

Implementation Examples

Several states have taken action to increase green space and parks by supporting new recreational trails, as in Illinois, Minnesota, and Virginia. The Mississippi state legislature authorized the city of Pascagoula to use food tax revenue to implement a comprehensive parks and recreation master plan (NCSL Winterfeld 2014a). In Milwaukee, watershed restoration plans include park and trail renovations in adjacent neighborhoods (SSCHC-Kinnickinnic) with direction from residents (SSCHC-KKRNIA). Brownfields redevelopment (US EPA-Brownfields), community gardens (ACGA), and Rails to Trails programs are implemented to some degree in all 50 states (RTC). 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 grants (10 Minute Walk).

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 not (TPL-Heat). In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, park and green space closures are more likely for small parks or those dominated by playgrounds or sports courts in which physical distancing is difficult; closures may worsen inequities in communities with fewer green spaces, especially if public transit is also closed or limited (Slater 2020). Recommendations include keeping parks open while ensuring physical distancing; engaging community members and prioritizing access or programming important to the community; and adding safe routes for pedestrians and cyclists to reach parks, green spaces, and trails (Slater 2020). 

Implementation Resources

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.

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.

NCPPA - National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity (NCPPA). About resources & reports.

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.

TPL-Harnik 2011 - Harnik P, Welle B. From fitness zones to the medical mile: How urban park systems can best promote health and wellness. Washington, DC: Center for City Park Excellence (CCPE), Trust for Public Land (TPL); 2011.

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.

Citations - Evidence

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

Kondo 2018 - Kondo MC, Fluehr JM, McKeon T, Branas CC. Urban green space and its impact on human health. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2018;15(3).

Slater 2016a - Slater S, Pugach O, Lin W, Bontu A. If you build it will they come? Does involving community groups in playground renovations affect park utilization and physical activity? Environment and Behavior. 2016;48(1):246-265.

Ding 2011* - Ding D, Sallis JF, Kerr J, Lee S, Rosenberg DE. Neighborhood environment and physical activity among youth: A review. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2011;41(4):442-55.

Cohen 2019 - Cohen DA, Han B, Isacoff J, Shulaker B, Williamson S. Renovations of neighbourhood parks: Long-term outcomes on physical activity. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 2019;73:214-218.

Blanck 2012* - Blanck HM, Allen D, Bashir Z, et al. Let's go to the park today: the role of parks in obesity prevention and improving the public's health. Childhood Obesity. 2012;8(5):423-8.

Bassett 2013* - Bassett DR, Fitzhugh EC, Heath GW, et al. Estimated energy expenditures for school-based policies and active living. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2013;44(2):108-13.

AHA-Mozaffarian 2012 - Mozaffarian D, Afshin A, Benowitz NL, et al. Population approaches to improve diet, physical activity, and smoking habits: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association (AHA). Circulation. 2012;126(12):1514–63.

Hunter 2015* - Hunter RF, Christian H, Veitch J, et al. The impact of interventions to promote physical activity in urban green space: A systematic review and recommendations for future research. Social Science & Medicine. 2015;124:246-256.

Wolch 2011* - Wolch J, Jerrett M, Reynolds K, et al. Childhood obesity and proximity to urban parks and recreational resources: A longitudinal cohort study. Health & Place. 2011;17(1):207-14.

Cohen 2006 - Cohen DA, Ashwood JS, Scott MM, et al. Public parks and physical activity among adolescent girls. Pediatrics. 2006;118(5):e1381-9.

Almanza 2012 - Almanza E, Jerrett M, Dunton G, Seto E, Pentz MA. A study of community design, greenness, and physical activity in children using satellite, GPS and accelerometer data. Health & Place. 2012;18(1):46–54.

King 2015a* - King DK, Litt J, Hale J, Burniece KM, Ross C. ‘The park a tree built’: Evaluating how a park development project impacted where people play. Urban Forestry and Urban Greening. 2015;14(2):293-299.

Dunton 2011 - Dunton GF, Liao Y, Intille S, Wolch J, Pentz MA. Physical and social contextual influences on children’s leisure-time physical activity: An ecological momentary assessment study. Journal of Physical Activity and Health. 2011;8(Suppl 1):103–8.

Vanaken 2018 - Vanaken GJ, Danckaerts M. Impact of green space exposure on children’s and adolescents’ mental health: A systematic review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2018;15(12).

Tzoulas 2007* - Tzoulas K, Kalevi K, Venn S, et al. Promoting ecosystem and human health in urban areas using Green Infrastructure: A literature review. Landscape and Urban Planning. 2007;81(3):167-78.

Schipperijn 2017 - Schipperijn J, Cerin E, Adams MA, et al. Access to parks and physical activity: An eight country comparison. Urban Forestry and Urban Greening. 2017;27:253-263.

Gascon 2016* - Gascon M, Triguero-Mas M, Martínez D, et al. Residential green spaces and mortality: A systematic review. Environment International. 2016;86:60-67.

Sallis 2015 - Sallis JF, Spoon C, Cavill N, et al. Co-benefits of designing communities for active living: An exploration of literature. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 2015;12(1):1–10.

Mitchell 2008* - Mitchell R, Popham F. Effect of exposure to natural environment on health inequalities: An observational population study. Lancet. 2008;372(9650);1655-60.

Shores 2008* - Shores KA, West ST. The relationship between built park environments and physical activity in four park locations. Journal of Public Health Management and Practice. 2008;14(3):e9-16.

UN IL-LHHL - University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UN IL). Landscape and Human Health Laboratory (LHHL).

Kardan 2015 - Kardan O, Gozdyra P, Misic B, et al. Neighborhood greenspace and health in a large urban center. Scientific Reports. 2015;5(11610):1-14.

Urban-Eldridge 2019 - Eldridge M, Burrowes K, Spauster P. Investing in equitable urban park systems. Washington, DC: Urban Institute; 2019.

Fernandez 2019* - Fernandez M, Harris B, Becerra M. Examining the complexities of increasing park access in two Latinx neighbourhoods. Local Environment. 2019;24(12):1136-1155.

Rigolon 2019* - Rigolon A, Németh J. Green gentrification or ‘just green enough’: Do park location, size and function affect whether a place gentrifies or not? Urban Studies. 2020;57(2):402-420.

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. 2018;49(3-5):217-235.

RAND-Cohen 2018 - Cohen D, Leuschner K. How can neighborhood parks be used to increase physical activity? Santa Monica, California: RAND Corporation; 2018.

Lapham 2016* - Lapham SC, Cohen DA, Han B, et al. How important is perception of safety to park use? A four-city survey. Urban Studies. 2016;53(12):2624-2636.

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.

Hoffman 2020 - Hoffman JS, Shandas V, Pendleton N. The effects of historical housing policies on resident exposure to intra-urban heat: A study of 108 US urban areas. Climate. 2020;8(12):1-15.

Citations - Implementation Examples

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

NCSL Winterfeld 2014a - Winterfeld A. State actions to reduce and prevent childhood obesity in schools and communities: Summary and analysis of trends in legislation. National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL); 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

TPL-Heat - Trust for Public Land (TPL). The heat is on: A Trust for Public Land special report. 2020.

Slater 2020 - Slater SJ, Christiana RW, Gustat J. Recommendations for keeping parks and green space accessible for mental and physical health during COVID-19 and other pandemics. Prevention of Chronic Disease. 2020;17:200204.

Date Last Updated