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Category: Health, fitness and well-being

nature play; role of open space in mental health

Healthy Spaces and Places

Healthy Spaces and Places is a web-based national guide for planning, designing and creating sustainable communities that encourage healthy living.

Foremost it is for planners, as they can help tackle some of Australia’s major preventable health issues by planning places where it is easier and more desirable for more Australians to be active – walking, cycling and using public transport – every day.

But it’s also for everyone who can make a difference to the overall health and well-being of Australians – design professionals, health professionals, the property development industry, governments and the community.

Healthy Spaces and Places supports and complements planning and design initiatives throughout Australia.  It is a single source of easy-to-find, practical information from experts in health, planning, urban design, community safety and transport planning.

This website includes:

Planning for healthier outcomes can be applied to all parts of Australia. It is just as applicable in metropolitan areas as it is in regional cities, towns, villages and remote communities.

For an overview, download Healthy Spaces and Places: a national guide to designing places for healthy living.

The material provided within Healthy Spaces and Places focuses on how to create environments that support physical activity but does not provide in-depth information on nutrition, food security and noise and air pollution.

Healthy Spaces and Places website re-established on PaRC

The Healthy Spaces and Places website is re-established here. The material was previously hosted on a dedicated website, but this has since closed down. (It was however snapshotted by the National Library in 2011).

Note 1: References in the website to Adobe Flash Player are obsolete as this program has been withdrawn by Adobe. Please replace with your own image viewer.

Note 2: The Healthy Places website is a stand-alone module and not merged into the Narratives webcode. Consequently the standard search function on the website does not search these pages.

National Heart Foundation (Tasmania) proposal for a State Planning Policy on Healthy Spaces 2019

The report Support for a State Policy for Healthy Spaces and Places outlines a justification for an SPP in the Tasmanian statutory framework.



This resource was developed by a collaborative team comprising the Australian Local Government Association, the National Heart Foundation of Australia and the Planning Institute of Australia and funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. For more information about the people involved in the project please see Acknowledgements.

For an explanatory article written at the time, see Anne Moroney (2009). “Healthy spaces and places: A national guide to designing places for active living”. Australian Planner, 46:2, 11-15, DOI: 10.1080/07293682.2009.9995303

Material provided on this website can be used freely but please acknowledge Healthy Spaces and Places as the source.

Review Status: Pending

The Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition

The Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) is focused on reducing the rates of chronic disease through research excellence in nutrition and physical activity. It is hosted by Deakin University, Victoria.

“IPAN is a multi-disciplinary research institute focused on understanding – and influencing – physical activity and nutrition to improve health across the lifespan.​

“Our research spans from the lab to real world settings. We conduct metabolism, physiology, clinical and behavioural studies, and community and population-based research.​”

Visit the IPAN website

IPAN research covers four research domains, one joint department and a research centre.

Research domains

Biology of health and disease
The overarching aim of research in this domain is to characterise and understand the biological mechanisms by which exercise and nutrition impact health. Research in this domain includes healthy and clinical populations across the lifespan – from growth in the womb to ageing.

Healthy active living​
This domain focuses on real-world solutions to increase population levels of physical activity and consists of three research groups; Physical activity and sedentary behaviour from infancy to young adulthood; Built and natural environments for healthy living​; and Worker health and stress.​

Preventing and managing chronic conditions
The focus of this research is the development, implementation, evaluation and translation of lifestyle-based solutions for the prevention and management of chronic diseases . This includes cardio-metabolic and musculo-skeletal-related conditions, brain, cognitive and mood-related disorders, and cancer. ​

Food, nutrition and health
Unhealthy diets are the leading contributor to the global burden of disease and research in this domain includes developing and evaluating interventions and translating research into policy and practice.

Baker-Deakin Department of Lifestyle and Diabetes

A collaborative partnership between the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute and PAN, the Baker-Deakin Department of Lifestyle and Diabetes has been established to advance research into one of the greatest health challenges of our time – the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes.

The Department focuses on developing evidence-based lifestyle approaches to address the growing prevalence of type 2 diabetes, drawing on shared interests in physical activity, sedentary behaviour, nutrition and chronic disease management research.

The Centre for Sport Research

The Centre (CSR) is focused on influencing practice in sport to enhance the health and performance of people and organisations participating in sports. CSR researchers are experts in sport, exercise and health.


Review Status: Pending

Peter Nicholls: Life Enjoyment Mentor

Peter Nicholls, of Adelaide, a long-term Trustee of the AIPR Trust Fund-Education (forerunner of PaRC), has described himself as “Australia’s People Gardener”. His inspiring life story has been summarised in his “Manifesto“, a challenge to people enslaved by an economic  worth ethic to substitute “life enjoyment” for “work” as their purpose in life.


Peter has made his updated Manifesto available to PaRC readers. Further details  of Peter’s vision may be obtained from his website,

Review Status: Pending

Smartphones and birdlife

Smartphone technology used to assess mental health benefits of birdlife

A growing body of empirical evidence is revealing the benefits of exposure to nature for mental health, including higher-level mental well-being and lower risk of mental illness1. However, the vast majority of the works in the literature have focused on the value of regular contact with green spaces, including forests, parks, gardens and trees. While these studies have led to growing appreciation of the mental health benefits of nature in general, we know little about the specific features which are drive these benefits.

For example, the mental health benefits of everyday encounters with birdlife for mental health are poorly understood. Earlier studies have typically relied on retrospective questionnaires or artificial set-ups with little ecological validity. In the United Kingdom, there is a captivation with birds underlined by the fact that more than 1.3 million people are members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Interest in birds is not just uniquely British: in the USA more than 70 million people have been recorded as interested in bird-watching, making this one of the most popular nature-based recreational activities. Further, bird-watching societies are not a phenomenon unique to the western world but are present worldwide, including countries with very different traditions and cultures.

Despite the human fascination with birdlife, few studies have specifically examined the effect of encountering birds as part of everyday life on our mental health.

Recently new and extensive research by researchers at King’s College, London has found that seeing or hearing birds is associated with an improvement in mental well-being that can last up to eight hours. This improvement was also evident in people with a diagnosis of depression (the most common mental illness worldwide) indicating the potential role of birdlife in helping those with mental health conditions. The study used an especially developed smartphone application to collect people’s real-time reports of mental well-being alongside their reports of seeing or hearing birdsong.

The project was funded by the Medical Research Council, National Institute for Health and Care Research, Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre and the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration South London.

To overcome the limitations of existing literature, the association between seeing or hearing birds and self-reported mental well-being (a strong predictor of mental health in the general population), was surveyed using a smartphone-based application. This ‘Urban Mind’ application ( uses Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA), a method which involves sampling people’s experiences in real-time and in real-world contexts. This technique allowed exploration of the relationship between the experience of seeing or hearing birds and mental well-being while minimising the risk of recall bias. The Urban Mind application also collected detailed information on the participants, allowing observers to explore how the effect of seeing or hearing birds on mental well-being depends on personal characteristics such as age, gender and having a diagnosis of mental illness.

Using the smartphone-based EMA, they carried out a ‘citizen science study’ which aimed to answer the following questions:

  1. Are encounters with birds as part of everyday life associated with higher mental well-being?
  2. Is the beneficial impact of everyday encounters with birds on mental well-being time-lasting?
  3. Does the beneficial effect of everyday encounters with birds on mental well-being differ between people with a diagnosis of depression and people without a mental health condition?

Lead author Ryan Hammoud, Research Assistant at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College (IoPPN) London, said: “There is growing evidence on the mental health benefits of being around nature and we intuitively think that the presence of birdsong and birds would help lift our mood. However, there is little research that has actually investigated the impact of birds on mental health in real-time and in a real environment. By using the Urban Mind app we have for the first time showed the direct link between seeing or hearing birds and positive mood. We hope this evidence can demonstrate the importance of protecting and providing environments to encourage birds, not only for biodiversity but for our mental health.”

The study took place between April 2018 and October 2021, with 1,292 participants completing 26,856 assessments using the Urban Mind app, developed by King’s College London, landscape architects J&L Gibbons and arts foundation Nomad Projects. Participants were recruited worldwide (including Australia), with the majority being based in the United Kingdom, the European Union and USA. The app asked participants three times a day whether they could see or hear birds, followed by questions on mental well-being to enable researchers to establish an association between the two and to estimate how long this association lasted.

The study also collected information on existing diagnoses of mental health conditions and found hearing or seeing birdlife was associated with improvements in mental well-being in both healthy people and those with depression. Researchers showed that the links between birds and mental well-being were not explained by co-occurring environmental factors such the presence of trees, plants, or waterways.

Senior author, Andrea Mechelli, Professor of Early Intervention in Mental Health at IoPPN said: “The term ecosystem services is often used to describe the benefits of certain aspects of the natural environment on our physical and mental health. However, it can be difficult to prove these benefits scientifically. Our study provides an evidence base for creating and supporting biodiverse spaces that harbour birdlife, since this is strongly linked with our mental health. In addition, the findings support the implementation of measures to increase opportunities for people to come across birdlife, particularly for those living with mental health conditions such as depression.”

Research partner Jo Gibbons of J & L Gibbons said: “Who hasn’t tuned into the melodic complexities of the dawn chorus early on a spring morning? A multi-sensory experience that seems to enrich everyday life, whatever our mood or whereabouts. This exciting research underpins just how much the sight and sound of birdsong lifts the spirits. It captures intriguing evidence that a biodiverse environment is restorative in terms of mental wellbeing. That the sensual stimulation of birdsong, part of those daily ‘doses’ of nature, is precious and time-lasting.”

Further research on a more diverse sample is needed to allow the generalisation of these findings to the general population.

This study has potential for mental healthcare policy. Visits to habitats with a high concentration of birdlife could become part of social prescribing schemes, playing a role in preventing mental health difficulties and complementing more traditional interventions. Paramount to all of this, will be the adoption of environmental and wildlife protection policies for the preservation and enhancement of a mosaic of habitats in rural and urban settings.

The study, ‘Smartphone-based ecological momentary assessment reveals mental health benefits of birdlife’, was published in Scientific Reports and is free to access via


Review Status: Pending

Sport knowledge – the Australian Clearinghouse

The Australian Clearinghouse for Sport is the pre-eminent information and knowledge-sharing platform for Australian sport.

The Clearinghouse brings together Australia’s leading sport and active recreation agencies, using Sport Australia as the principal information coordinator, to share news, evidence and insights about sport, human performance and physical activity. The Clearinghouse works to:

  • Identify and acquire information of relevance to the Australian sport and active recreation sectors;
  • connect people in sport and active recreation with complementary expertise;
  • inform Australian sport practitioners (such as athletes, coaches, physical educators, scientists, medical providers, researchers, administrators, students, facility managers, policy makers, volunteers, and sporting officials) about good and promising practice in sport and active recreation;
  • provide Australian governments at all levels with comprehensive and policy relevant analysis of research relating to sport and active recreation, and its value to the community; and
    Provide Clearinghouse members with high quality information on sport, physical activity and active recreation.

The Clearinghouse is a central access point for knowledge about the Australian sport sector and for communication between sportspeople and sporting organisations. It is an entity of the Australian Sports Commission, itself an agency of the Australian Government. Access its website here.

Given the existence of the Clearinghouse with its focus on ‘active’ recreation and sport, the PaRC document library and this PaRC narratives website have purposely focused on ‘passive’ recreation, open space and park management, although of course no clear distinction can be maintained.

Canadian Sport Information Resource Centre

The Canadian equivalent is an excellent source of technical knowledge about sports played in that country. Click on SIRC Resources or its French version.

Review Status: Pending

Childhood exposure to ‘blue spaces’ and subsequent well-being

Much has been researched and published over the past two decades into the health benefits of contact with nature. But these have largely focused on green space or natural spaces. ‘Blue spaces’ also have unique sensory qualities and facilitate a distinct range of leisure activities. Of course they also pose a number of hazards, particularly for children, and this may increase parental concerns.

Even if green and blue spaces can be conceptualised as separate entities, they cannot be distinctly separated from each other. Terrestrial attributes around blue spaces, such as paths and easily accessible watersides, usually contain green vegetation and many green spaces also contain or border on water bodies such as rivers, wetlands, ponds and the coast. Blue and green space experiences are frequently bound together and childhood exposure to blue spaces is likely to be predictive of the future frequency of green space visits as well.

A new extensive study by researchers from the University of Exeter in the UK has investigated those benefits relating to days at the beach. Their report entitled “Mechanisms underlying childhood exposure to blue spaces and adult subjective well-being: An 18-country analysis” (Australia was one of those countries) was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology Volume 84 December 2022,

The researchers point out: “We know far less about the benefits of blue spaces, or the role childhood contact has in these relationships in later life”.

Their new report is based on data from the BlueHealth International Survey (BIS), a cross-sectional survey co-ordinated by the University of Exeter’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health. The analysis took in 15,000 people from 14 European countries and four non-European countries/states: Hong Kong, Canada, Australia and California.

Respondents were asked to recall their blue space experiences between the ages of 0-16 years. These included how local were these blue spaces: Were they close by to where the participant lived as a child, or were they some distance away? How often did they visit these spaces? How comfortable were their parents or guardians with their playing in these settings?

They were also asked about “more recent contact with green and blue spaces over the last four weeks, and mental health over the last two weeks”. So the assessment of a participant’s mental health was based on how they’d been feeling of late, rather than on a clinical evaluation. For many people, some of the happiest memories from childhood were those days spent at the beach, or fishing, swimming and sailing or on a river. Such family holidays where when the family was at its most relaxed.

When talking to people who grew up on or near a beach or a lake – or even on a farm – it was common to find that memories of childhood happiness are tied to those places, where they could roam freely and soak up the diverse beauties of nature. On that basis, it’s no stretch to wonder if an abundance of such memories has a positive impact on one’s mental health in adulthood.

The researchers concluded that “adults with better mental health are more likely to report having spent time playing in and around coastal and inland waters, such as rivers and lakes (also known collectively as blue spaces) as children”. The finding was replicated in each of the countries studied.

This recent evidence suggests that growing up near blue spaces is associated with a lower prevalence of a variety of mental health disorders during adulthood, even after accounting for concurrent green space exposure. These findings place exposure to blue spaces during childhood as a potentially important predictor of adult mental well-being in its own right.

Valeria Vitale, lead author and PhD candidate at Sapienza University of Rome, said: “Our findings suggest that building familiarity and confidence in and around blue spaces during childhood may stimulate an inherent joy of nature and encourage people to seek out recreational nature experiences, with beneficial consequences for adult mental health.”

Dr Leanne Martin, co-author and a postdoctoral research associate at Exeter, said: “Water settings can be dangerous for children, and parents are right to be cautious. This research suggests though that supporting children to feel comfortable in these settings and developing skills such as swimming at an early age can have previously unrecognised life-long benefits.”

This is probably the most significant finding in the study. The main point is: teach your children to swim, and give them practical guidance on how to stay safe at the beach or on the river, which can be tricky. On that basis, if young beach-goers do grow up with greater resilience – a more than reasonable suggestion, if not a conclusion in this study – it’s because they enjoyed their parents’ confidence.

The study raises questions about how outdoorsy are today’s children? Dr Mathew White, co-author and Senior Scientist at the University of Vienna, said: “The current study is adding to our growing awareness of the need for urban planners and local bodies responsible for managing our green and blue spaces to provide safe, accessible access to natural settings for the healthy mental and physical development of our children.”

Review Status: Pending

Green space and public health – (2) Healthy parks, healthy people

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.


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 town planning regime. But this pioneering work was dropped from the subsequent iteration of the plan.

Nature is under threat – but has intrinsic and existence values

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

Biodiversity has 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!


Review Status: Pending

Green space and public health – (3) The human mind and nature intertwined

Our relationship with nature is deeply intertwined with both the human conscious and subconscious minds. Recently there have been concerted attempts to empirically examine this relationship, especially in the disciplines of biology, ecology, psychology and psychiatry.

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 people 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 of a kind which is generally associated with happiness – an interesting verification of the synergy between mental and physical health.


This growing global awareness, actually a revival, as will be understood from Narrative (1) in this 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, more than two-thirds of the world’s population will live in towns and cities, with most of that increase happening 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 sustainable development. For the first time ever, more than half of the world’s population already live in cities and can be ‘divorced’ from much of nature – in consequence they are less likely to have contact with nature and hence to benefit from and to appreciate the value of open space and of biodiversity and the importance of its conservation.

The stress that humans perceive may be ubiquitous, but its remedies are not. Appreciation of time spent in nature for recreation and restoration has deep historical and cultural roots throughout the world. The eddies and swirls of seasonal winds, the fractal branching of trees, the low murmur of streams and the Fibonacci structure of flower petals all provide conscious and unconscious cues that settle the addled mind. The ordered complexity found in natural environments is key to the mental stimulation they offer and, indeed, their enduring allure.


In Japan, strands of historical silviculture and more recent scientific inquiry – along with traditions of painting, poetry, and landscape design – are visible in the modern practice of shinrin-yoku, ‘forest bathing’, whereby walking in natural landscapes is thought to improve health. Today, shinrin-yoku is practised at 52 Forest Therapy Bases, with as many as 100 ultimately envisioned across the archipelago.

In Western media, the practice of shinrin-yoku is either grouped with a suite of alternative and complementary medical practices deemed ‘natural’ (‘The Natural Way to Calm Down’) or inserted awkwardly into a lexicon of conventional health consultation (‘Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning’); but neither characterisation grasps its context accurately.

In the 20th century, Japan’s need for forest products was increasingly (and unsustainably) outsourced to its Asian neighbors and beyond. Efforts to invigorate interest in well-managed native stock led the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute to conduct research in the late 1970s and 1980s into aromatic compounds called phytoncides, essential oils that are emitted by unvarnished wood. These compounds are produced by live trees as defensive or signalling agents but are also present in resin, and have been associated with improvements to mood, immune function, and blood pressure. Mature aromatic sugi and hinoki forests are among those considered rich in bioactive compounds.

Accessible outdoors

Many of our 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 children are more often kept indoors, ever-reducing gardens too have become more formal with less play space with the inevitable stifling of the creativity, imagination, stimulation and activity that previous generations enjoyed from natural environments, especially those immediately accessible to the home. Water restrictions in many cities have discouraged gardeners and technological games dominate leisure time.

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 fourth-grader as “I like to play indoors better ‘cause that’s where the electrical outlets are”!


This situation is evolving at the very time that human populations, at least in the West, are increasingly suffering from non-communicable diseases like obesity, mental health problems, breakdowns in community cohesion, and of course the loneliness and boredom triggered by the COVID-19 epidemic. Interestingly, though many playgrounds were at first closed, local parks and open spaces became ‘newly discovered’ for people to unwind from their periods of required isolation and as a break from their ‘working from home’ routines.



It is entirely plausible that, if working from home becomes popular – even for just one day a week – people will spend some of the time that they used to spend in commuting by heading out to a local park, bike way or creekside, or joining locally grounded community groups. The message for urban planners and decision-makers is to ensure that new suburbs are designed to secure generous areas of open space, public parkland and public meeting places, with high-order connectivity to other parks and landscape features nearby.



Review Status: Pending

Green space and public health – (1) A short background

In the beginning …..

The impact of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s on both sides of the Atlantic led to increasing urbanisation and a population that began to work indoors, in ‘the dark satanic mills’ of factories, rather than in outdoor active agricultural occupations. It was realised that people needed places to re-create themselves, and so the evolution of parks (and the word ‘recreation’).

When parks were first promoted in the nineteenth century, city officials had a strong belief in the potential health advantages that would result from open space. It was thought that parks would reduce disease, crime and social unrest as well as providing ‘green lungs’ for the city and areas for recreation.

In referring to London in 1829, famous landscape designer J.C. Loudon provided his Hints on Breathing Places for the Metropolis, and for Country Towns and Villages, on Fixed Principles, stating:

We hope that the legislature may not think it unworthy of their attention to take into consideration the subject of breathing places, on some systematic plan, calculated for the benefit of all ranks in all parts of the British metropolis. 

Already at that time, it was also believed that exposure to nature fostered psychological well-being, reduced the stresses associated with urban working and living, and promoted physical health. These assumptions were used as justification for providing parks in cities, and preserving wilderness areas outside of cities for public use in the UK, Europe and USA.

In both England and the USA the focus was on the ability of non-work activity to improve the health, education, social adjustment and life chances of poor people, children, the elderly, handicapped and others who had few resources to replace the outdoor physical activity of agriculture-based peasant life. A less charitable interpretation is that nature-based recreation would shape their mental outlook and improve their character, making them more malleable in their new roles as industrial workers. And so open space was dedicated to provide these opportunities. The human relationship with nature was being recognised as deeply intertwined with both the human conscious and subconscious mind.

Poets and writers captured this (common) sense, like Wordsworth in his 1802 “Daffodils” which concludes with:

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought,

What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.”


Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde’s 1897 quotation, inscribed on his memorial statue in Merrion Square, Dublin, Ireland reads: “It seems to me we all look at nature too much and live with her too little.”


The various movements to establish parks centred on shaping urban development, preserving nature and creating opportunities for wholesome recreation, and on using recreation and exposure to nature to promote physical activity, character development, socialisation skills and education. In the UK the Registrar of Births Deaths and Marriages said in his annual report of 1845: “a Park in the East End of London would probably diminish the annual deaths by several thousands …. and add several years to the lives of the entire population”.

In the mid-1850s Frederick Olmsted championed the cause of city beautification in the USA, including a reference to Central Park in New York as “a healthy refuge from the over-crowded living sections in southern Manhattan”. A colleague referred to Olmsted as “An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks.”


In his 1865 The Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree: A Preliminary Report Olmsted stated:

If we analyze the operations of scenes of beauty upon the mind, and consider the intimate relation of the mind upon the nervous system and the whole physical economy, the action and reaction which constantly occur between bodily and mental conditions, the reinvigoration which results from such scenes is readily comprehended. . . . The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.

The promoters and champions of the first public parks also saw them as a means to boost the local economy and civic pride by making towns and cities attractive places to work and live. These parks were conceived as special places where all sections of society could enter free of charge and mix freely.

The City of London’s commitment to open spaces dates back to the 1870s when, in response to the rapid disappearance of many public open areas to make way for the building of new suburban homes and other developments (sounds familiar?), it embarked on an ambitious project to safeguard some of what remained. Two Acts of Parliament passed in 1878 granted the City of London the right to acquire and protect both Epping Forest and land within 25 miles of the City for the recreation and enjoyment of the public. This far-sighted policy was the inspiration behind the later Green Belt movement, designed to protect the countryside around other British cities from urban sprawl.

Meanwhile the natural landscapes further afield were similarly being valued. American geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden, while not the only person to have thought of creating a park in the Yellowstone region, was the park’s first and most enthusiastic advocate. He believed in “setting aside the area as a pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people”.

John Muir the respected Scottish-American naturalist, today referred to as the ‘Father of the National Parks’, said in 1898: “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.” 



Even in 1938 UK Professor G.M. Trevelyan wrote in the foreword to the Case for National Parks:

… it is no less essential for any national health scheme to preserve for the nation walking grounds and regions where young and old can enjoy the sight of unspoiled nature. And it is not a question of physical exercise only it is also a question of spiritual exercise and enjoyment. It is a question of spiritual values. Without sight of the beauty of nature the spiritual power of the British people will be atrophied!

Somewhere during the twentieth century, especially as the pace of lifestyle in industrialised Western society increased, that early rationale slowly became forgotten and, although parks have not entirely lost their connection with health, the modern emphasis has been mainly on their use as a venue for physical activity, particularly sport, or as tourism destinations. With increasing urbanisation the vital role that parks, green space and their associated biodiversity (especially in ‘convenient’ urban parks) play in offering health and well-being benefits and enhancing human appreciation becomes even more relevant, just as conserving this precious biodiversity becomes more important.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, especially in Asia, the concept of the value of contact with nature for medicinal, cultural and spiritual reasons has been far more ingrained than in Western society. Mystic natural places like mountains are revered for their spiritual powers. Traditional outdoor exercises have been practised for at least 2000 years. Walk through any park in Japan, China, Korea and Thailand and similar countries in the morning and you’ll see people right up to age 80s doing their daily workout of stretching and strengthening together with breathing exercises and acupressure and self-massage techniques of tai chi and yoga. It is in these countries where the benefits of shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) emerged.


Review Status: Pending