How useful is a new international study linking park access to exercise?

A connection between exercise and parks in eight countries has been welcomed by parks professionals but they say it is time for politicians to take notice of the large existing body of evidence.

A boy tries out the green gym in Centenary Park. Image: Rugby Borough Council
A boy tries out the green gym in Centenary Park. Image: Rugby Borough Council

The International Physical Activity and Environment Network (IPEN) Adult Study was conducted by multiple academic institutions assessing the connection between access to parks and physical activity. Importantly they used the same methods on 6,181 participants from 12 cities in eight countries on four continents.

The study, published in Urban Forestry and Urban Greening journal, found that respondents who lived in the neighbourhoods with the most parks did on average 24 minutes more moderate to vigorous physical activity per week than those living in the neighbourhoods with the lowest number of parks.

Parks and grounds manager at Rugby Borough Council Chris Worman, the first parks manager to welcome the recently-appointed parks minister Marcus Jones to his parks, four green flag parks to be exact, in August, knows all about the connection.

In creating, alongside community groups, the 2.7ha Centenary Park in Newbold-on-Avon, Rugby from derelict land in a deprived area, his team was able to show that three times as many people visit parks daily after the opening than before. Of these 65.4% said they walked to the park, against 44.4% before the opening. Most people said they visited the park for physical activity and visiting made them feel better.

He said the data produced by the IPEN study was "anecdotally something we’ve known for some time. There are more and more studies coming out now backing that up with hard data, which is where the industry has been lacking for some time.

"All of these studies add to our argument that green space is important to our health and well-being, alongside the other benefits parks have. All of that research is very welcome and backs up our arguments regarding green space." He says London and Manchester city mayors are now talking notice of the data and thinking about how they can influence people’s access to parks on a strategic level.

Nottingham City Council’s head of parks, open spaces and investment funding Eddie Curry agrees. "This research clearly provides evidence about the health and well-being benefits that are improved if communities have close access to green spaces. This is not new information but yet another study confirming the benefits that green spaces bring and contribute towards improving the health and well-being of the nation.

He says this new data is useful and helps reinforce the recommendation included in the Communities and Local Government Committee’s Parks Public Inquiry report that local authorities should work collaboratively with Health and Wellbeing Boards, and other relevant bodies to produce joint public health and parks strategies. 

"Guidance for these strategies and indeed a parliamentary response to the Inquiry report is still outstanding and therefore it is essential that Government clarifies its position and timetable to formally respond to the public inquiry report as soon as possible."

Like Rugby, Nottingham embeds health into its parks policy and works closely with the council’s public health department, which has included work mapping the areas of deprivation in the city and finding it correlated to where people had poor access to green space.

But Curry says a common England-wide public health/green space framework would be helpful. "The IPEN study is exactly the type of evidence base that needs to be embedded in a joined-up policy with public health and parks. The parks inquiry talks very clearly about setting up some guidance of what these local government implemented joined up strategies would look like."

One way in which the parks and countryside department is working with the council to encourage healthy lifestyles is the Cycle Ambitious Programme, which has so far delivered three different bike tracks in parks across the city.

According to Parks Alliance chairman and chief executive of Nene Park Trust Matthew Bradbury, it is useful to have rigorous data that bears out what parks professionals already think. "If you are looking for funding whether that’s from a government, charity or another body they very much want the data that backs up your proposal. But it’s not something that we didn’t know.

"I think over the next few years we’re going to do a lot more social prescribing, building on the work done by Dan Bloomfield at Exeter University. People will see the positive impact of being in parks for your health and well-being rather than doctors prescribing half an hour on machines in the gym."

However, historian Dr Layton-Jones questioned the continued call for more and more research, particularly in the CLGC’s inquiry report at the The Future of Public Parks: Policy, Practice and Research conference, hosted by Leeds University in London in July, saying the parks sector needed to "end the banality and stop stating the obvious" and address the urgent issue of parks decline now before it is too late.

"My own conservative figures indicate that over the past two decades, 104 reports focusing specifically on public parks and green space provision have been produced. Over 90% of those have been written since the 1999 Environment, Transport and Regional firs Committee Inquiry into Town and Country Parks identified "a basic lack of information" and "statistical vacuum".

"The truth is that we know the answers to the big questions. Do we really need more research to demonstrate the contemporary relevance of public parks? Do we really need more research to demonstrate that people value their historical parks?" she asked.

"Our politicians are alone in their reluctance to accept the overwhelming evidence base and their preference to, instead, raise the burden of proof seeming indefinitely."

"I think she’s got a real point," says Bradbury. "There are huge strands of evidence there, most of which the sector is aware of". He said he would like to see more specific studies, which would help in funding applications, for example around parks’ connection to health and education. The lack of joined-up working between academia and practitioners was also a theme at the event and something the conference sought to address. 

"A lot of research gets duplicated across sectors potentially wasting resources," says Bradbury. But he added that there was always a need to refresh data.

Curry says: "I absolutely agree. In many respects we’ve got too much information. From 2000 to date there has been a raft of well-researched medical evidence and lots of research that has been done in the parks community and in universities. We are not short of information but form some reason that message doesn’t get put into policy."

Worman also agrees with Layton-Jones’ position, saying there was now "a huge amount of data" data to justify the argument for parks and green spaces, not the case 20 years ago.

"There should be enough there to convince policymakers and governments to reinvest in parks long-term to save both money long-term and to improve people’s health and well-being. Obesity alone costs £18bn a year and diabetes £16bn a year.

"We now need to turn that data into action and have some good outcomes for the nation. It’s about parks saving huge amounts of money for the NHS. We all know that the NHS can’t continue the way it is. We all know the only way to stop treating so many people is to prevent them getting ill in the first place."

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