Frederick Law Olmstead claimed that direct access to natural surroundings, such as parks, has psychological benefits for people. As the landscape architect of New York’s Central Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, the Emerald Necklace in Boston and hundreds of other parks across the United States (including a small hand in the design of San Jose’s St. James Park), Olmstead is still held in high regard as the expert in park design.
But he was speaking as a landscape architect, not as a scientist. And despite his amazing amount of personal experience and anecdotal evidence, Olmstead’s opinion was not backed by empirical evidentiary review and analysis.
Henry David Thoreau, the brilliant American transcendentalist, author, naturalist and philosopher, also proclaimed that nature and natural settings have a positive influence on people’s minds and ultimately their overall health. Again, his opinions were valid as someone who had personally experienced an empowerment that came from living in nature and in solitude in natural settings for much of his life. But there was no scientific evidence, as we would understand it today, to support his beliefs.
Apparent Truth and Scientific Truth are different assessments, one of them the product of thought, discussion and experience; the latter, the result of specific controlled testing of results that can be replicated in further studies and predicted with accuracy. What amazes me is that not only were Olmstead’s and Thoreau’s observations and conclusions believable when they were made and pretty-much agreed-upon ever since, they also have now been scientifically examined and proven to be true.
I wrote a while ago about the new studies that show a beneficial health effect for people living near parks. There is a direct correlation between one’s proximity to parks and playgrounds and physical health, especially in teenagers. Studies over the past two decades have shown that walking and running have amazing impacts on patients who suffer from everything from depression and stress to serious mental illness. One doesn’t have to be a scientist to note that much, if not most, walking and running takes place in parks and trails.
Now we have studies that show a rather amazing result—college students derive a noticeable mental health benefit just from knowing that there is a nearby park, trail or open space. Other studies have shown positive correlations among hospital patients, inner-city girls, public housing residents and apartment dwellers.
In some cases, the test subjects ranked the psychological benefit above the physical benefits of parks. Other studies measured moods after people visited parks and there is clear, compelling evidence that just visiting a park will improve a person’s well-being.
There is a wealth of information on the benefits of parks, including my two favorite resources—The Trust for Public Land and The City Parks Alliance. Space prohibits me from citing all of the various studies, but I encourage you to do a search of the topics for a more complete look.
James P. Reber is the executive director of San Jose Parks Foundation, a veteran nonprofit entrepreneur and experienced special event planner and producer. He can be reached at [email protected] or 408.893.PARK.