Safety First!

Healing benefits of parks eclipsed by crime.

For many New Yorkers, COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of having a park around the corner. Unfortunately for some, however, the local greenspace does not provide the soothing relief and opportunities for exercise it was designed to offer.

Benefits of urban greenspaces are well documented—people who frequent parks experience lower stress levels, healthier weight, and decreased risk of heart disease. Studies have also shown that those who live closer to parks report fewer days of depression and anxiety.

But a new study by NYU Langone researchers suggests an important caveat to the blooms of positive findings around urban greenspace. Safety concerns could interfere with the mental health advantages of living in close proximity to a park.

About the Study

For the investigation, researchers analyzed responses from more than 3,800 New Yorkers who completed the city’s 2010–2011 Physical Activity and Transit Survey. The assessment tracked the participants’ mental health as well as how long they estimated it would take them to walk from home to the nearest park. The survey also asked participants how often they used the park to exercise or play sports.

When compared with people who estimated at least a 30-minute walk, people who lived less than five minutes away from a park were almost twice as likely to report that they exercise “sometimes” or “often.” Also, people who identified as “frequent” park exercisers reported having one fewer day of mental health issues a month compared with people who said they “rarely” or “never” were active in their local park.

For those worried about crime in the park during the day, living close to a park made no difference in their mental health, since they probably chose not to be physical active there in the first place. “Living near a park may not be enough to improve your physical and mental well-being through exercise,” says study lead author Stephanie L. Orstad, PhD, a research assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at NYU Langone Health. “If we want to make the most of the abundant health benefits parks offer, then we need to make them not only accessible but also safe for everyone.”

According to Dr. Orstad, improving cleanliness, offering more park-based programs, and fostering a sense of community could help make parks feel safer. “Investing in park safety offers a practical way of improving physical and mental health in different communities in the city, especially in areas where there are stigmas associated with seeking help,” says senior study author Melanie R. Jay, MD, MS, an associate professor in the Departments of Medicine and Population Health at NYU Langone. “It takes advantage of resources that may already exist in the neighborhood.”