THE BLOG
04/20/2016 03:58 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2017

Parks for Healthy Cities -- Time to Fill Our Prescription

Riding my bike home from work this week through the National Park Service's Mount Vernon Trail provided a vivid reminder of the role that parks play in promoting healthier cities. The diversity of people I saw was remarkable: other bike commuters and runners, kids and families playing in the fields along the route, and folks walking and fishing on the Potomac River. The calories being burned and mental health benefits were almost incalculable.

So it was exciting this week to hear Sally Jewell, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, speak about the Park Service's first ever "Park Prescription Day." The premise of this movement is that the city park down your street might hold the key to your health and our national well-being -- providing a critical day-to-day complement to our majestic but remote public spaces like Yellowstone National Park.

That is because these local city parks, usually developed and managed by cities and counties but sometimes by state and federal agencies like the National Park Service, offer the most widespread opportunities to enjoy outdoor recreation that can help address public health issues like obesity. These data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show how urgent it is for people to become more physically active, particularly for some segments of the population.

Anyone who has ever tried to start a fitness plan knows that success is all about consistency and habit. You need to literally re-program your brain to expect to exercise daily -- otherwise our busy and stressful lives overwhelm even the best intentions. I share this perspective as a former nationally competitive amateur athlete who is now just trying to figure out how to keep moving!

That means the literal geographic distance between a person and a park can make a big difference in the likelihood that individual will maintain a fitness program. My organization, The Trust for Public Land, believes everyone in cities should live within one half-mile, about a 10-minute walk, of a park. Our ParkScore analysis shows which of our largest cities in the U.S. are meeting this standard, and which are not. We are currently working on developing park data for 19,000 U.S. cities to help city leaders across country to identify where more parks are needed.

But not all parks are equally effective in promoting public health -- park design can play a critical role in how parks are used. After all, a square of grass with park benches and a few trees is not an engine for active recreation. But the inclusion of outdoor exercise equipment, like FitnessZones, can turn that same small park into a much more valuable site for high-energy recreation. The Park Service has been part of the FitnessZone movement in Washington, D.C.

Other park features can have an impact on sports from soccer to running. Put a small playing field surrounded by a running track into an urban schoolyard, and suddenly you have a site for after-school programs led by groups like Girls on the Run and the opportunity for students to organize a daily lunchtime soccer match. By contrast, many urban schoolyards are just a square of asphalt surrounded by a chain link fence.

Linear parks are perhaps the most important of all for public health. The Park Service's own Mount Vernon Trail and Cuyahoga Valley National Park are two great examples of urban national park units that provide critical safe routes for bike commuters, runners, and others who need long, uninterrupted stretches for their desired form of recreation or transport.

These parks are just a few examples of the dramatic increase in urban corridors devoted to cyclists, runners, and walkers. New corridors like The 606 in Chicago, the Highline and emerging Queensway in New York City, Chattanooga Greenways in Tennessee, Lafitte Greenway in New Orleans, and Eastside Rail Corridor in King County, Washington are all examples of cities investing in safe routes that will be critical for public health.

Cities are making this move because the demand is high, and not just from the millennial bike commuters and avid city marathoners who get much of the media attention. As detailed in this study, low income communities have the highest rate of bike travel for transport. Yet, another study shows the shortfalls in sidewalks and other safe routes is worst in low-income communities, putting these users at greatest risk.

Given this remarkable opportunity for parks of all shapes and sizes to lead the way to greater public health, Park Prescription Day is a great reminder to see and utilize these opportunities right in our backyards. Many Americans cannot afford a family trip to our crown jewel national parks, but there is some kind of greenspace near most of us that can be a recreation venue--the Park Service calls this #FindYourPark. Where such a search does not turn up a suitable park, this helps highlight where our communities need more investment.

Taking the extra step to actually prescribe park visits and recreation as a health solution helps make this link between parks and health even more direct. The prescription idea has been embraced far beyond the Park Service to include health leaders like the National Medical Association, with its "A Prescription for Exercise" initiative. Sometimes the best health solutions are the simplest ones -- like the park right outside our door. Time to follow doctors' orders.