Humans are deeply intertwined with nature, through both the conscious and subconscious minds as well as biophysically.

Whilst those perceptions are self-obvious, our decision-makers and funders (whether in politics or organisational management) demand evidence, not just intuition, to justify decisions about policy and budgets. Evidence is of course reliant on research and data but unfortunately for many years, parks and green space have been short on such information, in part because that research and data-gathering about human health and well-being have not been seen as core parks business. The doctrine of ‘individual responsibility’ for personal well-being has held sway, in tandem with the elevation of individual choice through markets as the dominant approach to economic policy. However, over the past two decades there have been concerted scholarly attempts to empirically examine this relationship, especially via advances the disciplines of biology, ecology, psychology and psychiatry.

Origin of ‘Healthy Parks Healthy People’

The term ‘Healthy Parks Healthy People’ was officially coined by Parks Victoria (Australia) at the beginning of this century, stimulated by its commissioned (but independent) review of the international literature, an accumulated body of evidence The Health Benefits of Contact with Nature – produced in 2002 by Deakin University. Parks Victoria progressively incorporated the concept into its strategic approach to park management. Remarkably, though the report found that there were many examples of such research, there had been no previous attempt to consolidate such work into a single benchmark official report.

The expression ‘Healthy Parks Healthy People’ is really a colloquial way of incorporating considerations of both biophilia and topophilia (see Definitions, later). The ‘Healthy Parks Healthy People’ concept has wide application. It is relevant to professionals and practitioners in public health and well-being, eco-tourism and park management generally (especially in urban areas), in both developed or developing countries, and irrespective of culture.

The approach has been introduced under a variety of names (including ‘Healthy by Nature’ and ‘Green Exercise’) by a number of park management authorities around the world – in Australia, the United States, Canada and Scotland, to name but a few. In other places the broad principles embodied by the phrase are understood and/or applied without labelling with a specific term.

The ‘Healthy Parks Healthy People’ approach is built on the understanding that the health and well-being of society depends on the health of ecosystems. Well-managed parks and green space ensure that ecosystems are healthy and resilient. Such healthy environments provide ecosystem goods and services that underpin human life, contribute to economic activity and support cohesive, vibrant and healthy societies. In particular contact with nature can improve human physical and mental health.

The ‘Healthy Parks Healthy People’ concept is underpinned by six key principles:

  1. Human health and well-being depend on healthy ecosystems.
  2. Parks conserve healthy ecosystems.
  3. Contact with nature can improve human health, both physical and mental.
  4. Parks contribute to economic activity and prosperity.
  5. Parks contribute to cohesive, vibrant and healthy societies.
  6. Conversely, promotion of human well-being will lead to greater appreciation of parks and ecosystems.

World Congress 2010

As a result of the success of its initiative Parks Victoria was encouraged to stage an international congress on the topic and this was held in Melbourne in April 2010, attracting more than 1200 delegates from 37 countries – a clear illustration of the global significance of the concept. The Congress concluded by producing The Melbourne Communiqué – a call to action!

The Chairperson, the Congress Committee and delegates of the inaugural International Healthy Parks Healthy People Congress 2010 call on:

  • The governments of the world;
  • The United Nations and its agencies (in particular UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Programme, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN World Tourism Organization) together with the World Health Organization, and International Union for Conservation of Nature;
  • National and international philanthropic, environmental and health organizations to adopt Healthy Parks Healthy People and make the following commitment: We commit to further our understanding of, and strengthen the connection between, nature and people. Our success depends on interdisciplinary collaboration and alliances. We as leaders in our field commit to work together to strive for a healthy planet and healthy humanity, and continue to promote, facilitate and advance the health and vitality of the world’s parks and communities. We undertake to rethink our approach to improving human and environmental health and do all in our powers to reconnect people to nature. We adopt the Healthy Parks Healthy People philosophy to protect the earth’s two most important assets – nature and people.”

As a direct result of attending this event and realising the significance, the US National Park Service promptly established its own version (Healthy Parks Healthy People U.S.).

Since that time the NPS together with U.S. Forestry Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Pan American Health Organization have established joint and several fledgling initiatives to incorporate the ‘Health Parks Healthy People’ agenda.

 Europe

The European Cooperation Scientific & Technical Research (COST) report in its 2007 strategic workshop ‘Health and the Natural Outdoors’ had already stated:

There is a convincing but widely dispersed evidence base, confirming the benefits to human health and well-being of close contact with nature, animals and plants.

  • Access to nature should be considered in public health policy in Europe;
  • Access to nature and natural places can be a central theme in promoting contemporary lifestyle-based public health approaches; and
  • Health should be a central theme in urban and land-use planning, for example, in debates about urban densification. Effort spent in developing tools and strategies that integrate healthy lifestyles into urban planning and greenspace management will be well repaid.

Other ongoing global initiatives included the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), which initiated a special task force on Forests and Human Health in 2011, an effort that connects forestry and health science professionals; and the Cooperation on Health and Biodiversity (COHAB) initiative which links biodiversity with human health and well-being within the larger framework of the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals.

 World Conservation Congress 2012

Impressed by the logic and value of the concept and the impact of the 2010 Congress, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) encouraged a consequential adopted Motion No 46 at the 2012 World Conservation Congress, which recommended:

 IUCN and its constituencies to adopt the Healthy Parks Healthy People philosophy and commit to further understanding of, and strengthen the connection between, nature and people. To work collaboratively with WHO, and other key global bodies, to implement initiatives that deliver both human health and biodiversity outcomes and continue to promote, facilitate and advance the health and vitality of the world’s parks and communities globally. To undertake research and analysis to better develop compelling rationale for the approach to all levels of policies. To forge partnerships and alliances with the health and medical care community to raise recognition of parks and protected areas as a healing tool and a vital source of health and well-being.

Ottawa Charter

The complementary source of direction for public health, the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion (WHO, Geneva, 1986) identifies three basic strategies for health promotion: advocacy for health to create the essential conditions for health indicated above; enabling all people to achieve their full health potential; and mediating between the different interests in society in the pursuit of health. These strategies are supported by five priority action areas as outlined in the Ottawa Charter:

  • build healthy public policy
  • create supportive environments for health
  • strengthen community action for health
  • develop personal skills, and
  • re-orient health services.

Wingspread Declaration

In the US, the Wingspread Declaration on Health and Nature, July 2014 stated:

 Nature and human well-being are connected: The connection between people and the natural world is fundamental to human health, well-being, spirit, and survival. Nature is a source of food, clean water, clean air, medicine, shelter, and economic opportunity. Moreover, in order to thrive, humans require direct access to nature. Whether a city park, a community garden, a tree-lined street, or wilderness – nature in people’s daily lives reduces stress, renews the spirit, connects people to each other and increases physical activity. In short, humans are part of nature, our connection with nature is a fundamental human need, and we believe access to nature is a basic right.

 However, large numbers of people – many of them children – are now disconnected from nature. As a direct consequence, people around the world are suffering from substantial health challenges, many of them preventable. Likewise, the natural world faces increased pressures and vulnerability. The human, natural, and economic consequences of these challenges are already enormous.

 This situation calls for placing consideration of the nature-health connection at the center of research, design, and decision-making across multiple fields. Concerted, cooperative action from health, environmental, educational, governmental, and corporate actors is needed to reconnect people with nature and to secure commitment to protecting nature.

European COST

The European Cooperation Scientific & Technical Research (COST) report in its 2007 strategic workshop ‘Health and the Natural Outdoors’ had already stated:

There is a convincing but widely dispersed evidence base, confirming the benefits to human health and well-being of close contact with nature, animals and plants.

  • Access to nature should be considered in public health policy in Europe;
  • Access to nature and natural places can be a central theme in promoting contemporary lifestyle-based public health approaches; and
  • Health should be a central theme in urban and land-use planning, for example, in debates about urban densification. Effort spent in developing tools and strategies that integrate healthy lifestyles into urban planning and greenspace management will be well repaid.

City of London

Green Spaces: The Benefits for London, a report prepared for the City of London Corporation and published in July 2013 concluded:

 Returning to the question ‘What have green spaces ever done for London?’ the strongest evidence currently points to the positive impact they have on the environment and on people’s health and well-being. In addition to helping to counteract major urban sustainability challenges such as atmospheric heating, they provide space for exercise, play, events and ‘getting away from it all’. This is particularly pronounced in larger green spaces.

 It is also important to note that the far reaching environmental and health benefits created by large green spaces in and around London can be enjoyed by all of London’s residents and workers as they are public goods, and ones that contribute to London’s overall ecosystem.

Ecosystem services

Many researchers have come to the conclusion that humans are totally dependent on nature for psychological, emotional and spiritual needs as well as for material needs (food, water, shelter, etc.).

In 2013 the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health in the US produced a workshop report entitled The Natural Environments Initiative that explores how we can – and should – integrate natural elements into city plans to support public health while also providing ecosystem services, or the contributions of natural elements to the quality of human life. It envisions exposure to nature as part of a larger public health strategy captured by the acronym AIM: Advocate (access to nature for health), Invest (in equitable access), and Mediate (engage in translation between disciplines to build support beyond the health sector) – see The Natural Environments Initiative.

In Queensland, the Regional Landscape Strategy group of the State Government worked to include an ecosystem services chapter in the South East Queensland Regional Plan, which in due course gave the concept statutory force through the twon planning regime. But this pioneering work was dropped from the subsequent iteration of the plan.

Human mind and nature intertwined

Our relationship with nature is deeply intertwined with both the human conscious and subconscious mind. Recently there have been concerted attempts to empirically examine the relationship between the human mind and nature.

Research in 2016 showed that when people exercise they release a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) which acts as a reset switch. It is why we often feel at ease and things are clearer after exercising. The following image shows that after a 20-minute walk there is increased brain activity which is generally associated with happiness – an interesting verification of the synergy between mental and physical health.

This growing global awareness is actually a revival (as will be understood from Narrative 1 of this two-part series) of the importance of green space and nature to cohesive healthy societies. This relationship is symbiotic, but both aspects of the relationship are under threat. In much of Asia the principles of the ‘Healthy Parks Healthy People’ concept are inherent in many of the cultural and spiritual practices but as western lifestyles intrude there is a danger that the influence will be lost.

Today’s rates of urbanisation have no precedent in history. By 2045, over two-thirds of the world’s population will live in towns and cities, with most of that increase taking place in Asia and Africa. As cities expand and new cities are born, the way that urban populations, planners and innovators interact with nature will directly shape global prospects for health, well-being and human development. For the first time ever, more than half of the world’s population already live in cities and can be ‘divorced’ from regular contact with nature. In consequence they are less likely to benefit from and to appreciate the value of biodiversity and the importance of its conservation.

How many of Australians’ own cherished childhood memories relate to nature? Building a tree house, climbing trees, splashing in muddy puddles, fishing with a stick, family picnics – the list is endless. Now societal fears mean that technological games dominate leisure time and children are more often kept indoors; ever-reducing gardens too have become more formal with less play space, inevitably stifling the creativity, imagination, stimulation and activity that previous generations enjoyed from natural environments.

Our technological age has encouraged sedentary lifestyles at both work and leisure – a particular concern with the younger generation increasingly spending more time indoors, never better expressed than in the title of Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder in which he quotes a 4th grader as “I like to play indoors better ‘cause that’s where the electrical outlets are”!

This situation is occurring at the very time that human populations are increasingly suffering from many non-communicable diseases like obesity, mental ill-health and breakdowns in community cohesion, as well of course the COVID-19 epidemic which has limited travel outdoors.

Climate change, of course, is at the same time altering the ‘outdoors’.

Biodiversity has of course been endangered for some time, with loss of significant species and consequent ecosystem impacts. Even to the less informed, the visual amenity of biodiversity that parks provide is an attraction verified by the significant popularity of ecotourism destinations, which of course in turn creates economic well-being through commercial activity. Yet perversely, biodiversity is itself under increasing threat with widespread clearing of native vegetation and urban development.

For far too long parks have been considered, even by park managers themselves, as ‘nice to have’ but not essential amenities! That situation is changing. More recently there has been a re-awakening to the value of nature. The large number of people using local public parks for exercise and enjoyment during the COVID-19 epidemic of 2020-22 demonstrated their desire to get outdoors, to meet others or to enjoy nature as part of their coping and healing needs.

We are all aware that nature – the presence of living things – makes us feel good. We marvel at how artists and photographers have captured images of landscapes and wildlife. Poets and writers have incorporated these in their highly praised works. We get a thrill out of unexpectedly sighting wildlife, we enjoy a relationship with pets and we are delighted by wonderful scenic views. We use expressions like ‘don’t forget to stop and smell the roses’, indeed we use flowers to celebrate, congratulate and commiserate – all related to emotional experiences. We recognise the need to get a ‘breath of fresh air’ meaning to escape the daily rat race of urban living. More recently the concept of ‘weekend escapes’ has become popular and most of these are to the countryside! These phrases are part of our inherited lexicon. We even get pleasure from just knowing that something natural – a wilderness area, a rare bird – exists, even if we may never experience it, except perhaps on the Discovery Channel or a Sir David Attenborough documentary!