Access to green and open spaces and the role of leisure services

Public parks and open spaces usually fall under the remit of local authorities’ recreation and leisure functions, which include sports and leisure centres, swimming pools and other facilities.

Access to open spaces and leisure and recreational facilities has direct and indirect impacts on people’s physical and mental health, but can also enable people to build social capital.

How can access to green and open spaces affect health?

  • A study in the Netherlands showed that every 10 per cent increase in exposure to green space translated into a reduction of five years in age in terms of expected health problems (Groenewegen et al 2003) with similar benefits found by studies in Canada (Villenveuve et al 2012) and Japan (Takano et al 2002).
  • Green space has been linked with reduced levels of obesity in children and young people in America (Liu et al 2007). There is also strong evidence that access to open spaces and sports facilities is associated with higher levels of physical activity (Coombes et al 2010; Lee and Maheswaran 2010) and reductions in a number of long-term conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and musculoskeletal conditions (Department of Health 2012).
  • The proportion of green and open space is linked to self-reported levels of health and mental health (Barton and Pretty 2010) for all ages and socio-economic groups (Maas et al 2006), through improving companionship, sense of identity and belonging (Pinder et al 2009) and happiness (White 2013).
  • Living in areas with green spaces is associated with significantly less income-related health inequality, weakening the effect of deprivation on health (Mitchell and Popham 2008). In greener areas, all-cause mortality rates are only 43 per cent higher for deprived groups, compared to 93 per cent higher in less green areas.
  • However, people from more deprived areas have less access; children in deprived areas are nine times less likely to have access to green space and places to play (National Children’s Bureau 2013).

What are the possible priority actions for local authorities?

Local authorities can significantly influence how people use green spaces, as well as their access to leisure facilities.

To increase access to open and green spaces to improve health, local authorities can:

  • work with local communities to help them develop strategic plans for green space within broader neighbourhood plans. This will help to stimulate physical activity in local communities (Astell-Burt et al 2013). Access to green space – particularly for lower socio-economic groups – could also be prioritised in planning developments
  • work in new ways with the private and third sector through partnerships or trusts (Audit Commission 2006). The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment has proposed funding models to ensure that the health benefits of parks are maintained (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment 2006)
  • invest in extra staffing where necessary to ensure that parks are well maintained and that anti-social behaviour does not act as a disincentive for people to enjoy the space and derive health benefits from it (Wheater et al 2007a, b)

However, interventions designed to increase access to green and open spaces for disadvantaged groups requires a detailed knowledge of local needs, cultural contexts and attitudes, with clear objectives and strong targeting. For example, a scheme to increase community participation in Derbyshire’s forests saw thousands more people visiting, but most were from high-income groups, thus reinforcing inequalities (O’Brien and Morris 2009).

The business case for different interventions

Parks and public gardens are associated with health and wellbeing at the community level, including satisfaction with ‘place’, increased social cohesion and interaction (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment 2005), increases in volunteering, and opportunities for more creative ‘play’ among children, as well as better educational performance.

Increasing access to parks and open spaces could reduce NHS costs of treating obesity by more than £2 billion (Groundwork 2011). Access to green space can reduce mental health admissions too, resulting in additional savings for the NHS (Wheater et al 2007a, b).

Increasing access to leisure and sports facilities for local residents can also have much wider impacts. Analysis of Birmingham’s city-wide Be Active programme suggests that up to £23 is recouped for every £1 spent, in terms of better quality of life, reduced NHS use, productivity gains, and other gains to local authorities (Marsh et al 2011). Economic modelling suggests this kind of intervention is a more cost-effective way of improving health through physical activity when compared with most medical interventions (Frew et al 2012). Other pricing initiatives, such as free swimming (Audrey et al 2012), also attract a high proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds, supporting health inequality reduction.

Further resources and case studies

  • The Faculty of Public Health has produced a briefing statement, Great Outdoors: How our natural health service uses green space to improve wellbeing (Faculty of Public Health 2010), with advice on how to work in partnership to achieve improvements in health and wellbeing through use of green space.
  • The National Obesity Observatory (2012) has produced resources on green space, parks and health.
  • Green Spaces: The benefits for London, is an up-to-date and concise review of the health, social and economic benefits of the London Corporation’s estate (BOP Consulting 2013).
  • Returning Urban Parks to their Public Health Roots, by the Centre for Public Health of Liverpool, John Moores University, focuses on the future of parks as hubs to improve public health (Wheater et al 2007a, b). It includes creative options for change, including developing a ‘public health park ranger’ role.
  • Paying for Parks (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment 2006) sets out options for local authorities to maintain funding of parks, to ensure that their health benefits are not lost. Nesta’s Rethinking Parks initiative will support areas to develop innovative funding models (Neal 2013).
  • Greenspace Scotland has produced case studies of the social return of investment (Greenspace Scotland 2011) to parks and other green spaces.

For references please see Improving the public's health: references appendix

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