1st May 2020
As the coronavirus outbreak alters the way we live our lives, the UK’s public parks and greenspaces provide essential services for millions of adults and children who want to continue to live healthy and happy lives. This is especially true for those who face barriers to exercise and leisure in other spaces like gyms and private gardens, and critically, at a time when opportunities for exercise and fresh air are limited while we spend more time at home. Long term funding is not in place to ensure these essential public services continue to meet the needs of people now and in the future.
Fewer options to exercise and enjoy nature during this period of social distancing gives us an appreciation of the effect of living in communities with limited greenspace. We all have a sense that not visiting nature has an impact on our wellbeing, but how significant? The UK government regularly surveys people, asking them to report how satisfied they are with life and their anxiety levels. People who regularly visit parks report higher levels of life satisfaction than those who do not (after controlling for many other factors that affect a person’s wellbeing). The University of Exeter published research in 2019 demonstrating that those who spend at least 120 minutes per week in a park or greenspace get high levels of benefits. In recent work comparing the effect of regularly visiting parks to not visiting, we found that the effect on self-reported wellbeing when restrcted to just just two hours per week in greenspaces, is equivalent to one third of the impact of losing one’s job. It’s significant!
Physical exercise in parks improves life expectancy. These crucial physical health benefits to individuals also reduce the burden on the NHS in the medium and long-term. The NHS recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity (like brisk walking) activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity (like running) activity a week. These levels of physical activity reduce the risk of common killers including heart disease and diabetes. Physical exercise in parks translates into healthy life years gained and totals around £2,000/year for someone who regularly works out in their local park. But designing parks to accommodate use by a diverse range of the community, with different health needs, is critical if we are to ensure these vital assets contribute to maximising the physical and mental wellbeing in the UK.
Measures to protect people from the coronavirus have put parks at the centre of national consciousness. Especially when holidays and other leisure facilities are closed. The role these spaces play appreciated by many confined to their homes with limited access to private space. In the immediate future, parks will continue to provide a vital means of maintaining the health of people across the UK, provided social distancing is adhered to. Beyond this, parks must continue to be an integral part of the fabric of our physical and mental health. Recognising the essential character of this service, we must give priority to making public greenspaces available to every local community in the UK. We must fill in the gaps in the network, and we must establish resilient, lasting funding arrangements for public greenspaces that will mean generations to come can enjoy healthy and happy lives.
Author: Ashley Gorst