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Category: Health, fitness and well-being

nature play; role of open space in mental health

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

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 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!


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

Review Status: Pending

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.


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