By Hannah E. Jones
Park Pride hosted its 22nd annual Parks and Greenspace Conference this week, with about 450 government officials, local leaders and park enthusiasts filling the Atlanta Botanical Garden. The theme was “The Healing Power of Parks,” with speakers exploring the importance of park access and use from the perspective of health, community, policy and more.
The full-day conference kicked off with keynote speaker Howard Frumkin, senior vice president for The Trust for Public Land. Frumkin explored the ways that local, accessible greenspaces improve physical health and mental health while also strengthening relationships between neighbors. He describes greenspaces as a “public health superpower.”
Life expectancy in the U.S. is going down but Americans also spend more per capita on healthcare than anywhere else in the world. While parks aren’t the only solution, Frumkin said they are an important piece of the puzzle.
The first, most obvious reason is that parks encourage physical activity — walking, running, biking, playing sports or even using an outdoor gym. Additionally, simply spending time outside — reading, listening to music, having a picnic — does wonders for one’s physical and mental health, including increased serotonin, better sleep, improved cognitive function, less stress and reduced risk of chronic illnesses like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
A study also found that post-op patients whose room has an outside view were hospitalized for less time and were more likely to need weaker pain medications compared to patients whose rooms faced a brick wall.
Finally, outdoor spaces are critical for offering a place for folks to convene — something that is desperately needed in our country with a loneliness epidemic, which has an impact on one’s health that compares to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
To achieve these outcomes, serious investment must be made into creating, maintaining and increasing access to our local parks. For example, Frumkin recommended that local officials apply for a waiver from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to use Medicaid funds in ways other than clinical care.
Parks and greenspaces can be healing in other ways, too, as highlighted by the folks with Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative (ONPPI), a group of Middle Georgia and Muscogee (Creek) citizens working together to expand the current Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park into Georgia’s first National Park and Preserve.
This area has been home to humans for about 17,000 years and supports an abundance of wildlife, including 32 mammal species, 170 birds, 26 amphibians, 31 fish and 35 reptiles. The space also holds great cultural significance as the former home to the Muscogee Nation, who was forced out by settlers.
“We love this land. We honor this land. This land is very sacred to us,” said ONPPI Director of Advocacy Tracie Revis, who is a member of the nation. “There’s a hurt that came from being removed from your land. Oftentimes, we have citizens who, when they come back to this land, have mixed feelings. A park and [the work] we’re doing has created an opportunity for us to tell stories and to bring healing.”
In a similar vein, Jha D. Amazi, principal of MASS Design Group, joined to discuss the healing power of parks for reckoning with past injustices. MASS Design Group is a nonprofit design collective that designs public greenspaces to promote justice and human dignity.
“Design is never neutral,” Amazi said. “It either hurts or heals.”
She continued: “What will it take to ensure that parks and our public landscape are truly a place where all people feel welcome, seen and included?”
For example, MASS helped design “The Embrace,” a recently unveiled monument in Boston, Mass. The 20-foot-high, 25-foot-wide sculpture depicts a photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King following the announcement that King had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The work is an ode to the King’s time spent in Boston, their union and their shared commitment to the Civil Rights Movement.
“It’s a living memorial — a public space devoted to the conversation, education and reflection that is meant to remind visitors of our shared humanity and honor the King’s ideal for fostering a beloved community in which everyone can realize their role in bringing about a more just society,” Amazi said. “I will leave you all with a question: How can spatializing memory inspire collective action for generations to come?”
In addition, Park Pride announced its new $12.8 million capital campaign called “Parks for All.” The bottom line of the conference was clear: Investing in parks and removing barriers to access is a cornerstone for healthy, thriving communities.
Click through the gallery below for more snapshots of the conference. Photos by Kelly Jordan.