In questioning the future of our health and well-being, the health of our planet and how connected we feel to the rest of nature–and the equity issues inherent to all this–it’s easy to feel powerless. Multiple unique challenges suggest the need for multiple unique solutions, which may be difficult when there’s so much to pay attention to.
The new Cornerstone Parks Reports on Stewardship and Park Use allow us to change how we think. What if the same approaches that improve the planet’s health also strengthen its people’s health and happiness? And what if those activities are as within-reach as our local urban park? A growing body of evidence suggests that shared solutions to multiple challenges are at our fingertips.
Source: Park People – Stanley Park, Vancouver
The new Cornerstone Parks Reports on Stewardship and Park Use (High Park Report – Stanley Park Report – Mount Royal Report) combine findings from 796 individual survey responses throughout 2021 and 2022 to demonstrate large urban parks’ impact on communities’ connectedness to nature and–by extension–their health and happiness.
Surveys show that most park users (67%) who visit the large urban parks being studied spend their time participating in social and recreational activities rather than nature-focused ones (33%). And yet, the higher park users rate their nature-connectedness, the higher they report their physical health, mental health, and overall well-being.
People who engage in hands-on, nature-focused activities and park stewardship (over other park activities) report powerful social connections; a sense of belonging, meaning and purpose in their lives; greater physical health; and overall life satisfaction. To summarize, a healthier, happier life may begin with getting our hands dirty.
Source: Les Amis de la montagne – Mount Royal, Montréal
Large urban parks like High Park in Toronto, Stanley Park in Vancouver, and Mount Royal in Montreal are essential spaces for city-dwellers to access and connect with nature, including through park stewardship.
“Park stewardship” refers to park-based programs or events that invite volunteers to care for the land we’re a part of and depend on. Park stewardship can include removing invasive species, planting native species, inventorying or monitoring plants and wildlife, or removing litter, among other activities.
Among Cornerstone Park stewardship participants, 98% of those surveyed said that volunteering as stewards contributes to feeling connected to living things and the environment. Surveyed volunteers also said that participating in stewardship enables stronger feelings of nature-connectedness than engaging in recreational activities (75% vs 51%, respectively).
Knowing that there’s an association between nature connection and health suggests that participating in park stewardship could significantly impact health more than general park use.
Source: High Park Nature Centre – High Park, Toronto
Those participating in park stewardship more often rate their physical health and life satisfaction higher. People who participate in stewardship activities 20 or more times per year rate their life satisfaction the highest–even higher than those who engage in park recreation daily!
Source: Stanley Park Ecology Society – Stanley Park, Vancouver
Unfortunately, our findings also show that some communities are less engaged in park stewardship. The majority of those who participate in stewardship identify as cis-gendered women (68%), able-bodied (86%) and white (76%).
With many communities under-represented in these parks and their programs, not everyone can access the health and social benefits experienced by park stewards.
Park user surveys also revealed that nature connections are weaker amongst specific demographics:
If certain communities are left out of stewardship programs and feel generally disconnected from nature, it’s reasonable to assume that this may impact their health.
Large urban parks have a meaningful opportunity to diversify their visitors and stewards. With current gaps in mind, founding Cornerstone Parks High Park, Stanley Park, and Mount Royal prioritize innovative programs that engage equity-deserving communities in park stewardship. The proof is in the numbers. From 2021 to 2022:
Source: High Park Nature Centre – High Park, Toronto
The Cornerstone Parks program is currently announcing new partnerships that maximize the impact and influence of Canada’s large urban parks. They include the Darlington Ecological Corridor in Montreal, Quebec; the Everett Crowley Park Committee and Free the Fern in Vancouver, BC; and the Meewasin Valley Authority in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
The Cornerstone Parks network is excited to grow with them and measure how their stewardship work improves the lives of their diverse communities, all while helping their cities adapt to current and future crises such as climate change.
Environmental health, human health, and equity are complex. But we can work smarter, not harder, with solutions that nurture ourselves, the planet, and each other simultaneously. If we follow the evidence that participating in environmental stewardship leads to better health and greater happiness–and if we commit to extending those well-being benefits to more equity-deserving communities–the solution-seeking potential of our actions is multiplied.
To get our hands dirty is to reclaim power, especially in times of change. Canada’s large urban parks are the sites that show us how. Through innovative programs, they connect communities to nature and each other. The closer every Canadian is to a Cornerstone Park, the closer they are to tangible solutions: for now and for the future.
Dive deeper into the findings of our Cornerstone Parks Reports on Stewardship and Park Use, and follow us as we expand our network of Cornerstone Parks.