Greener Parks for Healing: An Opportunity?

By Bobby Cochran


Ever get that nasty thought that just keeps turning in your head like an endless spin cycle on the washing machines at the laundromat!? I do sometimes. It’s pretty easy to worry about how kids will get to school in fall, feel despondent about centuries of racism, or just frustrated with that silly thing your cousin said on Facebook. Scientists have a term for that — it’s called “rumination”, and it’s not good for us.

Photo credit to Philadelphia Water Department

I’m not sure about you, but part of what breaks that spin cycle for me is a trip to my neighborhood park. I can walk along the path listening to birds, while my daughters can chase the dog around in open spaces. I can gather (at a distance) and connect with family. All of this recharges my energy, makes me feel calmer, and helps me feel more connected to my community.

And, we have the science that shows us what’s actually happening in our bodies to make us healthier when we experience those feelings in a park. Cortisol levels, an important stress hormone tied to heart and other chronic diseases, go down. That feeling of positive connection to my community and to others reduces my risk of depression. In fact, our zip code — where we live, and how we are connected to each other — is tied to more of our overall health than our genetic code!

So why are so many of us feeling now than in previous generations? Why is the United States spending 18% of its GDP on healthcare (nearly twice the average for the other 11 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries), yet has some of the worst health outcomes? And why, if parks make me feel so much healthier, is that not a benefit enjoyed by everyone in my community?

It’s because we have expertly built our policies on 400 years of practices that segregate, exclude, and ignore significant numbers of our neighbors. Those policies have limited access to green parks and have fostered the kinds of racism where running outdoors does not feel safe for everyone. For example, redlining under the National Housing Act of 1934 made it nearly impossible for families of color to buy homes. That policy increased racial segregation in housing and investment in infrastructure following those boundaries. Now the patterns of displacement, as housing prices rise, follow those same boundaries from the 1930s. The result is that race is the primary predictor of exposure to environmental pollutants. The result is that parks in low income and community of color neighborhoods are fewer and farther in between. Basically, we have robbed communities of healthy lungs, heart, and power to heal that parks have the potential to provide.

That’s part of why Willamette Partnership teamed up with the National Recreation and Park Association, Sean Watts Consulting, Blue Stocking Strategy, and Greenprint Partners to develop the Greener Parks for Health resources. The resources include:

And there are communities already changing policy at the local, state, and federal level to include more nature and green infrastructure in parks in ways that specifically create health equity. At the center of each policy innovation, there is often a strong community coalition with government leaders willing to share power. When there is a commitment to invest in what communities value, parks rise higher up the priority list.

For example, in Portland’s Jade District, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), Friends of Trees, the City of Portland, and others are investing in neighborhood greening explicitly to stabilize small business ownership, reduce asthma, and reduce traffic deaths. The effort has changed the City’s funding priorities, and the coalition is also combining new city and state COVID-19 recovery funds to build community cohesion. In Seattle’s South Park and Georgetown neighborhoods, communities came together with the Port of Seattle, Seattle Public Utilities, and others to imagine how greenspaces, housing stability, and workforce development could increase climate resilience and help people prosper in place.

These kinds of innovations are made easier with policy choices. The City of Seattle uses a citywide Equity and Environment Initiative that helps guide inter-departmental priorities, investments, and ways of engaging with community. The City of Portland uses zoning, infrastructure investments, and its water utility funds to protect and invest in green infrastructure. These kinds of innovations are happening all over the country. Lenexa, Kansas used a sales tax to invest in more green infrastructure and parks. Chicago and Philadelphia are using green infrastructure to turn alleyways into green spaces and create new job pathways for youth.

Our hope is that these Greener Parks for Health resources make it easy for all of us to take on our role as public health providers. Health starts with caring for each other and parks can help facilitate that caring —from a bench in a natural area to talk to an elder to a creekside area for a family BBQ. These simple actions are the social fabric that build stronger communities. If you’re interested in taking action for greener parks and health in your town, if you want a coalition to move policy change in your state, or you want some ideas on how to pitch your Congressional delegation, reach out and give us a call. We’d be happy to chat. Until we connect again, be well, be strong, care for each other, and thank you for all the work you do and will do to make this place home for all of us!

See Bobby’s original post on LinkedIn.

Check out the full suite of ‘Greener Parks for Health’ resources!


Bobby Cochran led Willamette Partnership's work around building community resilience and innovation. He is passionate about supporting community leaders to move resources from dumb stuff to better stuff - especially when that means clean water, better health, and economic inclusion. Bobby is now with the Rural Community Assistance Partnership. He received a Ph.D./M.A. in Urban Studies/Conflict Resolution from Portland State University.


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