The Value of a Park

By Morgan Tietz

Spending time in nature has been proven to improve mental health and decrease the negative effects of depression and anxiety. In the past few years, knowledge about the importance of mental health has grown substantially. After the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) published some pretty staggering statistics on mental health in America, scientists began to shift their focuses on holistic ways to alleviate mental health disorders. A survey of Americans conducted by the IDSA found that one in every five individuals experiences a mental illness at some point in a given year and that 18% of Americans have an anxiety disorder. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in people aged 10 to 35 and suicide rates in America have risen in individuals without a college degree who are of low socioeconomic status. The IDSA also found that one in every ten Americans experience depression every year.

Since realizing how many people suffer from mental health disorders, researchers began looking into various ways to treat these illnesses without the use of medication. A new field has been emerging around the concept of eco-psychology which integrates ecology into psychology. One group of researchers, Peter James, Rachel Banay, Jaimie Hart, and Francine Laden from TK University, published an article in the Topical Collection of Environmental Epidemiology that delves into greenspace and its relationship to mental health. In the article, the researchers talk about how greenness may influence health by promoting physical activity and social contact. This thereby decreases stress and can lessen symptoms of depression and anxiety. The article even stated that access to greenspace could be associated with decreased death rates meaning that greenspace can help people live longer lives.

Ecotherapy is a formal treatment for depression that, encourages people to spend time outside appreciating nature. Ecotherapy stems from the idea that people are part of the web of life and that our psyches are not separate from our environment. Individuals who partake in ecotherapy are encouraged to explore how they fit into nature and often develop a deep relationship with the outside world. The field pulls ideologies from earth-based cultures like Hinduism and various Indigenous tribes. These cultures value greenspaces because they believe that their gods are connected to nature and thus they return to it for spiritual guidance. The treatment was developed in hopes that it would promote mutual healing of both individuals and the environment. For many people, ecotherapy is a way to find meaning and healing in ways that traditional Western medicine can not.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life."
John Muir
This is Cedar Beach Park which is located near one of the most affluent parts of the city.

Greenspaces are spaces in urban environments set aside for recreational or aesthetic purposes, could be used as open green areas, parks, fields, or gardens. Access to greenspace can greatly improve mental health in people who live in urban areas. Baylor Scott & White Health, an award winning health care system in Texas and also one of the largest not-for-profit health care systems in the country researched the effects nature has on mental health. According to their research, they concluded that nature decreases physical and perceived stress levels, increases resilience and ability to bounce back after an emotional situation, and stimulates social interactions that lead to restorative experiences. Furthermore, greenspace can improve overall mood and diminish symptoms of anxiety and depression while deepening social bonds and increasing overall happiness. The research also concluded that parks can be beneficial for children because they increase creativity and help children build meaningful social bonds.

Across all cultures, inherent value is placed on nature. A number of mechanisms for why greenspace has positive impacts on mental health were proposed by Biologist E.O. Wilson who suggests that humans have evolved over many years to have an affinity for nature, plants, and living things. The article published in Environmental Epidemiology concludes from this information that exposure to nature may have a direct restorative effect on cognition and may decrease stress. Furthermore, vegetation can buffer air pollution, increasing overall human health and shade from trees can decrease temperatures, alleviating thermal discomfort for individuals who experience heat stress.

Unfortunately, urban areas often lack a sufficient amount of greenspace that is readily accessible to everyone in the community. This means that parks and other open areas are not within walking distance for people. Often times, the populations that are most affected by this are the most vulnerable populations in a city; the impoverished, physically impaired, or mentally disabled. Typically, they do not have access or are unable to drive a car to their nearest park.

(above) This is a portion of the 109 acre Cedar Creek Parkway located in Allentown. This portion of the park is called Muhlenberg Lake and is close in proximity to Cedar Beach Park. This is one of the largest green spaces in Allentown.(r) Swing set located on the intersection of E Texas road and S Ott street. The playground is small with a freestanding swing set and a small slide.

Pennsylvania’s third largest city, Allentown, is attempting to expand and improve their accessible greenspace. Karen El-Chaar, head of the Allentown Parks and Recreation Department claims that any neighborhood in Allentown is within two blocks from a playground. “Anyone and everyone in Allentown has access to a park,” said El-Chaar

According El-Chaar, as soon as open plots of land become available, they are claimed by the city and converted into public parks that are accessible to anyone in the Allentown community.

Allentown is home to 35 parks which make up, in total, 2,061.81 acres of park land. This sounds like it would be a positive thing given that parks and greenspace contribute to positive mental health, but just five of those parks make up 1,613.43 acres of that land. That means that the majority of those parks are quite small and do not have much green space. Some of these “parks” are not even parks at all but simply small grassy areas with a jungle gym slapped on it.

It just so happens that all five of these large parks are located in the more affluent sections of Allentown, a mile or more away from the poorest parts of the city. This has been a trend that has been noted in other cities like Los Angeles (which has just 6.7% greenspace) and internationally in Dubai (2% greenspace), all of which is located in the most affluent portion of the city. According to Baylor Scott & White Health, impoverished areas are more likely to experience depression and anxiety and these populations are the ones that have the most limited access to greenspace.

Morgan Tietz is an Environmental Science major and double minor in Sustainability Studies and Creative Writing at Muhlenberg College. After studying botany, zoology, and biology in high school, Morgan has developed a love for science and the environment. While in college, Morgan worked on conservation advocacy at the Lehigh Valley Zoo and plans to pursue a career in sustainability. Morgan continues to make environmental advocacy a priority in her life and spent some of her summer in Costa Rica researching climate change. Morgan enjoys playing with animals, hiking, camping, writing and talking to everyone about her plant-based diet.