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Mission Outdoors


Healthy Parks, Healthy People

We spend a lot of time at the Sierra Club worrying about the health of our planet. At the same time, we are also focused on human health, from pollutant-related consequences to health security in the wake of global climate disruption. But we don't often make the obvious point: that getting outdoors in nature can result in healthier, happier, greener populations.

This week, a cadre of parks, health, business, and academic professionals gathered at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California to discuss this connection at the Healthy Parks Healthy People Conference, convened by National Park Service (NPS). Sierra Club was present- in fact one of the only environmental groups in the room! - and couldn't be happier to see the community embracing these issues and searching for solutions.

Obesity and diabetes rates have reached alarming levels, especially among young people. Incidences appear to be hitting low-income communities and communities of color the hardest.. At the conference, NPS Director Jon Jarvis emphasized the potential for parks and greenspaces to play a key role in reversing this trend, by offering sources of healthy activities for everyone. He argued that the wellness of our population, both physical and mental, can be affected by strengthening connections between people and their parks. He challenged the parks system to develop and act on solutions.

But what does this all mean? Including parks in communities does not automatically increase the health of that community. There remain significant barriers to connecting parks and health, including educating the public about available opportunities to get outdoors, engagement through programming or other means, and follow-through. These barriers must be overcome for greenspaces to take their rightful place in contributing to overall health. To truly impact the health of the nation, safe outdoor experiences must be readily and widely available to all communities, regardless of background, culture, or socio-economic status. 

It is equally vital that parks be able to maintain their mission of protection and preservation. This means enabling parks to withstand the demands of climate disruption, ensuring that human enjoyment does not compromise ecosystem health. As one conference participant put it: "Healthy parks and open spaces mean healthy ecosystems, and healthy ecosystems mean thriving plants, animals, and people." We couldn't agree more.

Even the insurance sector is perking up its ears. UnitedHealth Group is leading this movement, maintaining that they have a vested interest in preventative care. They believe that emphasizing the health benefits of parks and other outdoor spaces can help lower health care costs, thus reducing their bottom line and resulting in a healthier economy. 

UnitedHealth Group is acting on this conviction with pilot programs and by pioneering technology tools. This commitment is inspiring, reminding us of the range of perspectives that can be activated in strengthening people-park connections.

The Healthy Parks, Healthy People 2011 Conference was a great starting point. Participants called for more public education campaigns, more programming, focused research to support benefits. They began to identify partnership opportunities and vowed to continue the work. The challenge, as always, will be translating the build up of enthusiasm into action.

Here at the Sierra Club, we remain committed to the health of our planet and the health of our populations, and are excited to be part of the solutions that are developing.

-- Tiffany Saleh, Sierra Club National Youth Outreach Representative

As seen in Sierra Club's Compass.

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