When I feel stressed at work, I get outside and walk to the nearest park. I lie on my back and watch the clouds go by or sit against the trunk of a tree and read. Breathe in, breathe out. Sometimes I’m only out there for 10 or 15 minutes, but I always feel better.

Yesterday was Bell’s annual Let’s Talk campaign to reduce the stigma around mental health issues, and so it seems an appropriate time to write a little something about the link between parks and mental health in cities. Do parks really make us feel better? If so, how? And, crucially, are those benefits available to all in a city?

There is a lot of research into these questions. In fact, if you printed out all the articles and scientific studies and stacked them on top of each other it would reach to the top of the CN Tower. (I don’t know if that’s true, but I always like when people write things like that).

CityLab compiled a pretty comprehensive list about the influence of parks and health, including mental health, which you can read here. But as a run-down, parks have been shown to reduce stress levels, improve mood and focus, and reduce depression and anxiety. Parks may also help us not to die. These links have been studied both for short-term exposure to green space—going for my 10 minute visit during a work break—and for long-term exposure—moving to a neighbourhood with more trees and parks nearby.

But these benefits are not distributed evenly in our city as they depend on things like access to green space (can you walk to a park?) and access to high-quality green spaces (when you get to that park is it full of garbage and broken benches?). This is where parks, mental health, and equity intersect.

It is a complicated area to tease out, which is why recently published work by Toronto-based researcher Nadha Hassen out of the Wellesley Institute is so important.The two papers—a scoping review and a theoretical framework—consist of a review of academic literature related to the association between green space and mental health and a good discussion of how this intersects with neighbourhood-based inequities.

One of the most interesting findings from Nadha’s research was the emphasis on the quality of green space as a factor for positively influencing well-being. Often these studies look at access or quantity of green space, either by measuring distance between homes and parks or using satellite imagery to determine how much green space is in a neighbourhood. But it’s the more subjective, and harder to measure, quality of parks that really have an important influence on our well-being.

Flemingdon Park dancing

Quality measurements that Nadha found were things like: is the area species-rich and biodiverse? Is it aesthetically pleasing, clean, and well-maintained? Is it quiet, peaceful, and well-lit? Are there facilities and amenities that are useful? Are there water features and reflecting pools? Is it safe?

Additionally, social interactions in parks were also found to increase the positive impacts of parks on well-being—something that I also found when researching Sparking Change, a report Park People is releasing in February on the social impacts of parks in underserved neighbourhoods.

The reason Nadha’s research is important and worth emphasizing is that park maintenance is often first on the table in cities that find their operating budgets constrained and look year to year for areas to make cuts. In fact, just this year Toronto’s proposed 2017 operating budget included a reduction in maintenance for parks in high-use times and for gardens—something we spoke out strongly against. Luckily this cut has been reversed, but the final decision still must be made by City Council in February.

Investments in park quality are particularly important in our underserved neighbourhoods—those 31 areas that the City of Toronto has identified as Neighbourhood Improvement Areas. If well-maintained, clean, attractive, safe, and well-programmed parks can positively impact mental health and well-being, then investments in gardens, grass-cutting, park programming, and amenities like playgrounds and pathways should be made through the lens of public health and equity as much as through park operations and maintenance.

As Nadha writes: “To strive towards creating mental health-promoting green spaces, we need to ensure access to good quality green spaces that meet the needs of diverse populations. In urban settings, neighbourhoods with low-income, newcomer, and racialized populations tend to have lower access to available, good quality green spaces compared to other groups that are higher income and white.”

Having data to make these decisions about where to invest would be great. Which is why, as Nadha suggests, we should develop tools to evaluate park quality—using some of the indicators that Nadha uncovered like cleanliness, amenities, programming, natural environment, and safety—as a measure for public health and equity. It would be great to see this data collection with community members themselves—kind of like neighbourhood safety audit walks do currently.

This information would help us prioritize investments to ensure everyone has a beautiful, clean, and welcoming park nearby when they need to sit under a tree and de-stress.

Jake Tobin Garrett, is Manager of Policy and Research at Park People.

Cover Photo: Mabelle Arts