Going To The Park May Make Your Life Better

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I may have grown up in the countryside, but I am more than content with my life as a city girl. That said, I find myself drawn to green spaces; for example, my vacations more often than not include trips to botanic gardens. And I like to walk to work when the weather's nice, taking advantage of Washington's quiet, tree-lined streets, sometimes cutting through a couple of parks and a public garden.

I'm getting more than simple enjoyment (and great pictures) out of these parks and gardens---it turns out that they may convey whole array of benefits, as explained in "Parks and Other Green Environments: Essential Comp. of a Healthy Human Habitat" (pdf), a recent report from the National Recreation and Park Association. (And what better subject to talk about on Earth Day?) Some highlights:

* A study that compared census tracts in Los Angeles found that people who had more parks reported higher levels of trust and a greater willingness to help each other.

* In a Dutch study of more than 10,000 households in the Netherlands, the less green a person's environment was, the more likely there were to be lonely or report a lack of social support.

* In low-income housing projects, residents who have views of only concrete and more buildings report more violence and aggression than residents who have a view of trees and grass. Thefts, burglaries and arson are all more common when vegetation is scarce.

* Japanese researchers found that just 15 minutes of walking in a forest environment resulted in less stress along with lower cortisol levels, pulse rate and blood pressure.

* Employees who have a view of trees from their desks report less job stress and more job satisfaction.

* Children who live in greener environments are more resilient and better able to cope with stressful life events, such as divorce.

* In another study, children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder had better concentration after a 20-minute walk in the park than if that walk had been taken through a neighborhood or downtown setting.

* Children in greener neighborhoods also weigh less and gain less weight than similar children in less green neighborhoods.

* A study of elderly people in Sweden found they had better concentration after an hour in the garden than if they had spent that hour in their favorite indoor room.

* A 1984 study of surgical patients in a Pennsylvania hospital found that those who had a view of trees and grass recovered faster, with fewer complications and able to rely on lower-strength pain medications.

* Several diseases are less prevalent in greener neighborhoods, including depression, asthma, stroke and migraines.

* In the places with the fewest green spaces, the poorest people die at twice the rate of the richest, but where green space is common, that is lowered to only 1.43 times the rate of the rich.

Study after study shows that greening our urban environment is important, that it can lead to less crime, less stress and better health. More than half the world's people now lives in urban areas, and by 2030 nearly 70 percent will do so. But, worryingly, our urban spaces are becoming less green, not more. So what's to be done? It's easy: build more parks, plant more trees, don't get rid of what we already have. And take advantage of what's outside.

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