Proximity to Urban Parks and Mental Health

Published in: The Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics, v. 17, no. 1, Mar. 2014, p. 19-24

Posted on RAND.org on March 01, 2014

by Roland Sturm, Deborah Cohen

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Research Question

  1. Is there a relationship between urban parks and mental health?

BACKGROUND: Urban parks have received attention in recent years as a possible environmental factor that could encourage physical activity, prevent obesity, and reduce the incidence of chronic conditions. Despite long hypothesized benefits of parks for mental health, few park studies incorporate mental health measures. AIMS OF THE STUDY: To test the association between proximity to urban parks and psychological distress. METHODS: Cross-sectional analysis of individual health survey responses. Data were collected for a study of capital improvements of neighborhood parks in Los Angeles. A survey was fielded on a sample of residential addresses, stratified by distance from the park (within 400m, 800m, 1.6 km, and 3.2km; N=1070). We used multiple regression to estimate the relationship between the psychological distress as measured by the MHI-5 (outcome variable) and distance to parks (main explanatory variable), controlling for observed individual characteristics. RESULTS: Mental health is significantly related to residential distance from parks, with the highest MHI-5 scores among residents within short walking distance from the park (400m) and decreasing significantly over the next distances. The number of visits and physical activity minutes are significantly and independently related to distance, although controlling for them does not reduce the association between distance and mental health. DISCUSSION AND LIMITATIONS: This paper provides a new data point for an arguably very old question, but for which empirical data are sparse for the US. A nearby urban park is associated with the same mental health benefits as decreasing local unemployment rates by 2 percentage points, suggesting at least the potential of environmental interventions to improve mental health. The analysis is cross-sectional, making it impossible to control for important confounders, including residential selection. IMPLICATIONS FOR HEALTH POLICY: Mental health policy has traditionally focused on individual-centered interventions. Just as health policy for preventable chronic illnesses has shifted attention to modifiable environmental determinants, population mental health may benefit substantially from environmental interventions. IMPLICATIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH: Policy evaluations should incorporate mental health measures when assessing neighborhood improvement programs and physical environments. Many recent and ongoing studies have excluded mental health measure in the belief that they are too burdensome for respondents or irrelevant. If a causal relationship is confirmed, then ameliorating neighborhood conditions and physical environments could represent a scalable way to improve mental health issues for large populations.

Key Findings

  • Mental health is significantly related to residential distance from parks.
  • The highest scores on the Mental Health Inventory scale were among residents within short walking distance from the park.
  • Scores decreased significantly over longer distances.

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