Making the most of our parks: How parks can optimize health benefits for users

septembre 22, 2023
Laura Smith

The Cornerstone Parks program, which works to maximize the impact and influence of Canada’s large urban parks, underwent two years of research with large urban park users and stewards to better understand the connection between parks and health. 

The recently published results suggested something we were already keenly aware of through conversations with communities and from our passions for spending time in parks – park use is associated with better health and well-being. But what really stood out from the research was that the most predictive factor of better health and well-being was park users’ feeling of nature connectedness. 

Nature-based Activities Improve Health and Wellness  

Our Cornerstone Parks survey of park users found a significant relationship between feeling connected with nature and higher reported mental health, physical health and general well-being. This means that as large urban park users feel more connected to nature, they rate their mental, physical, and wellbeing higher. 

However, most park users (67%) who visit Cornerstone parks primarily spend their time engaging in social activities, sports or recreational activities rather than enriching nature-based activities (33% of park users). And we see that park users who engage primarily in nature-based activities in Cornerstone parks report stronger nature connections and higher well-being scores. 

Source: High Park Nature Centre – High Park, Toronto

Putting the Research into Practice 

So how do we, as park users, park professionals and community members, ensure that people are getting the greatest benefit from visiting large urban parks? In exploring the research on nature connectedness and health, many strategies are identified to facilitate human-nature connections, including stewardship activities, nature mindfulness, preserving natural wooded areas, embedding sports into nature programs, and embracing diverse cultural knowledge and practices into park maintenance and events. 

But how do these strategies work on the ground with actual urban residents? We turned to our new Cornerstone partner, Meewasin Valley Authority, to understand how they foster nature connectedness in their urban park. 

Meewasin – not your traditional city park 

Meewasin Valley is a 6700-hectare park that spans the South Saskatchewan River for 75 km through and beyond the city of Saskatoon. The park is an ecological treasure composed of a prairie landscape with several unique ecosystems not found throughout the rest of the country. Grasslands, like those found in Meewasin, are one of the most imperilled ecosystems on the planet. They are incredibly rich in biodiversity and have been one of the most affected by human activity.

Due to Meewasin’s central location and massive trail system, the park welcomes over 2 million visits annually! The accessibility of the park allows city residents and tourists to easily explore nature without leaving the city. 

Meewasin Valley Authority is a leader in innovative nature programming. They host curriculum-connected programs for children, an app sharing Indigenous stories of the Valley, pollinator walks, dark skies stargazing, and sheep grazing demonstrations.

So what can we learn from Meewasin’s diverse nature programming, and how can those learnings, along with what the research tells us, be leveraged to optimize the health benefits of large urban parks?

Source: Meewasin Valley Authority, Meewasin Park, Saskatoon

1. Promote Park Stewardship Programs 

At Meewasin, stewardship is a major part of park programming. Meewasin has over 1,000 volunteers who work on various stewardship activities throughout the Meewasin Valley, including wrapping trees with wire to mitigate beaver damage, removing invasive species, replanting of native vegetation, engaging in wildlife inventory and litter clean-up in the park.

One way Meewasin ensures that stewardship activities are accessible and encouraging to diverse users is by offering various volunteer opportunities. This ensures that people can be involved in ways that most pique their interests or needs. For example, those looking to contribute to conservation efforts in the park that are not physically able to do plantings and invasive species control can help with wildlife inventory projects, public education and nature interpretation at events or join the marketing and public programming team. 

Source: Meewasin Valley Authority, Meewasin Park, Saskatoon

2. Incorporate Nature Mindfulness into Programs 

There is a growing body of research around the benefits of nature mindfulness and ecotherapy activities, increasing their popularity. Nature mindfulness and ecotherapy are broad terms that refer to activities involving mediation, bringing awareness of the natural world around us, yoga, deep breathing and raising consciousness of our place in the natural world. Not surprisingly, the research on these types of activities suggests that they deepen people’s connection to nature.

Research has also found that nature mindfulness activities have significant implications for children specifically. Engaging in nature mindfulness activities improves children’s sense of connection to nature, motivation for pro-environmental behaviours, and overall mood. 

Meewasin seems to be well aware of the benefits of mindfulness as their school education programs include nature mindfulness activities to help ground students in the park and strengthen their connection to nature. 

Source: Meewasin Valley Authority, Meewasin Park, Saskatoon

3. Take a light-hearted approach to conservation

In a time where we are inundated with negative news, specifically climate and environmental disasters, it can be hard not to feel overwhelmed and disempowered. This can lead to disengagement with nature and nature programs as people try to avoid feelings of eco-grief and climate anxiety.

Meewasin looks to provide relief from climate anxiety and negative environmental news with their more lighthearted programs like Naughty by Nature, which looks at the dating and mating strategies of the animals in the park. The program allows people to engage in joyful activities in nature and appeals to those who may not already be interested in conservation.

By offering different types of programs and focusing on fun, Meewasin can engage new populations in conservation and connect people to nature and conservation in a joyful way. 

Source: Meewasin Valley Authority, Meewasin Park, Saskatoon

4. Use Sports and Recreation to inspire nature connections 

We often think of sport and park recreation as directly conflicting with nature conservation. In the past, we’ve seen nature spaces cleared to make way for new sports facilities. 

However, the health of nature and sports are directly intertwined. As the climate changes, certain winter sports may become obsolete, and summer sports may become dangerous in extreme heat. So, it only makes sense that those passionate about sports also feel a sense of responsibility to the environment. 

Many research institutions and policymakers have picked up on this connection and have started to make the case for using sports and recreation as a gateway to nature education. Using sports as an entry point, we can engage a whole different group of people in nature conservation and fuel their sense of connection to nature.

The Sip and Skate program at Meewasin is a great example of how to put this approach into practice. Meewasin attracts visitors to join an evening of skating in the river valley with food and drinks and then provides opportunities for conservation education throughout the event. The brilliance of these events is that the Meewasin team inspires a passion for conservation by emphasizing the need to care for the planet to ensure that outdoor skating rinks can continue to exist. 

Source: Meewasin Valley Authority, Cameco Meewasin Skating Rink, Saskatoon

5. Embed biocultural diversity into park programs and management 

Biocultural diversity refers to the idea that the way we think about nature is based on our culture and heritage. For example, humans have evolved alongside the unique biodiversity in their native regions, have different languages and cultures, and therefore have different names, knowledge and practices relating to the land. This is biocultural diversity. 

One explanation for why people feel disconnected from nature is due to a lack of cultural ties to their current environment. In Canada, we see this through the erasure of Indigenous cultures and Indigenous traditional knowledge and practices of caring for the land. This creates a disconnect between Indigenous peoples and nature. 

To combat this, Meewasin, alongside other Cornerstone parks, is working towards building strong partnerships with Indigenous groups and ensuring stewardship practices are informed by the traditional caretakers of the land. Meewasin is currently working with many partners to expand access to traditional medicines and plants, provide urban ceremonial space and host fire ceremonies. This allows Indigenous populations to connect with nature in the park in ways that are most meaningful to them. 

Moving Forward… 

Now that we better understand the pathways to improved health through park use, wherein the key is nature connectedness, we must optimize these benefits for everyone! Cornerstone parks have demonstrated their ability to foster nature connections for city residents and are leaders in finding innovative approaches to bring nature to more people. 

As we advocate for more nature spaces, we also need to advocate for more nature programs that appeal to diverse users and incorporate many ways to connect with the land. Follow Park People, Meewasin and the rest of our Cornerstone partners online as we unpack more innovative nature programs and design strategies to optimize the interconnected health of our people, parks and cities. 

Made possible by the generous support of an anonymous donor, the Hilary and Galen Weston Foundation and

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