City parks are more than pretty outdoor spaces — research shows they can also be critical to improving a community’s health. In fact, from the earliest days of their implementation, parks have been tools for boosting air quality, encouraging safe physical recreation, reducing disease and discouraging crime, according to the George Wright Forum. That’s why park design is so important. The way a park is set up and organized plays a crucial role in how much it is used and, therefore, what level of impact it can make.
How are some of America’s parks influential in city environments today? What are some examples of urban parks that are contributing to their communities’ overall physical well-being? To help answer these questions, here’s a look at a few of America’s healthiest cities and the parks that you’ll find in them.
1. Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota | Outdoor Activities at Chain of Lakes: The Twin Cities may be known for long, cold Minnesota winters, but those harsh temperatures aren’t making the city sedentary. Ranked one of the 25 Happiest, Healthiest Cities in America by Prevention Magazine and the country’s No. 1 Healthiest City by the Travel Channel, Minneapolis-St. Paul boasts top scores for heart health, at least in part because of features like Chain of Lakes, a beloved downtown park made up of five lakes. Encouraging locals to get outside and be active, Chain of Lakes features about two miles of canoeing from Lake Calhoun to Brownie Lake, as well as lakeside paths for exercise.
What this means for park design: Providing urban spaces for locals to get active encourages physical activity in the city, particularly when those spaces can facilitate more than one type of activity.
2. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | Protected Water at Wissahickon Park: The City of Brotherly Love boasts one of the largest urban park systems in the world, spanning 10,500 acres in the city. One of its parks is Wissahickon Park, which demonstrates another way parks can improve health for cities — through water. Wissahickon helps keep water clean by absorbing and cleaning the polluted run-off water from surfaces before it can hit the waterway. Making up 1,800 acres along the creek of the same name, Wissahickon also offers more than 50 miles of rugged trails for jogging, running, hiking, biking and horseback riding.
What this means for park design: Not all health benefits from parks are the obvious ones. Less obvious surface features can be just as important, particularly if they protect the area’s air quality, water supply and so on.
3. Chicago, Illinois | Something for Everybody at Lincoln Park: In order for parks to be as beneficial as possible, they need to take into account the preferences of various people groups. What will make locals more likely to use the park? What activities or features do they prefer? Chicago’s Lincoln Park is a good example of this, as its designers placed multiple features in the park to draw different races and ethnicities (Gobster, 2002). Research showed that local Asians, Latinos, blacks and whites all agreed on certain features, including the lake, the ponds and Lincoln Park Zoo, for example, but there were differences of opinion on natural environments, facilities, park activities and sports opportunities. So taking these different desires of the community into account, Lincoln Park caters to all different tastes in order to maximize the usefulness to the city.
What this means for park design: Understanding the community around a park is key to being able to know what features will work best.
4. Richmond, Virginia | A Place to Play with the Pups: Part of what makes Richmond such a healthy town is its abundance of parks — especially dog parks. Ruff House Dog Park at Rockwood Park, for example, is an off-leash area that draws abundant locals who find they get physical activity while playing with their pups. To facilitate safe entry and exit, there’s a double-gated entrance; plus, the park includes benches, water and convenient parking for visitors.
What this means for park design: Dog parks may be for pets, but when they get owners running around and being active, they’re health boosters for people, too.
5. Portland, Oregon | Making Parks a Priority City-Wide: With a motto like “Healthy Parks, Healthy Portland,” it’s no wonder that public parks span more than 10,000 acres of the city in Portland, Oregon, including its 300 miles of greenways and bike trails. The mile-long McCall Waterfront Park, for example, is ranked No. 1 Thing to Do in Portland by US News & World Report and boasts breathtaking city views as well as a prime location along the Willamette River. Thanks to great natural spaces like these, the city itself is ranked third healthiest in the country by Travel Channel.
What this means for park design: Since parks can be so beneficial to the urban community, they’re worth prioritizing, both in terms of size and location.
From the Pacific Northwest to the Deep South, urban parks are vital spaces in cities across the country. They encourage physical activity, give city-dwellers a link to nature and beautify the communities in which they’re placed. Plus, as the examples in this article demonstrate, there are many different kinds of parks, from zoos to dog parks, that offer health benefits to citizens. This means cities have abundant opportunities for improving their citizens’ quality of life.