Healthy neighborhoods facilitate contact with nature and make healthy food available

Contact with nature has been shown to support health in innumerable ways. At the 55th IMCL conference we will hear about ways in which professionals in public health are working with cities to strengthen their commitment to improving access to nature in the city for physical, mental, and social health reasons, as well as new research findings in the area.

Green streets clean the air of particulates[1]. Parks and green/blue areas support physical activity, encourage more social play[2], reduce ADHD[3], and improve concentration[4]. Incidental nature everywhere protects social and emotional health[5], and promotes emotional resilience[6]. Community gardens and farmers markets, especially in poor neighborhoods, help ensure access to fresh, locally grown food and generate social networks.

“The Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation is creating a Playbook to guide the delivery of parks and recreation services for the next 25 years” says Katherine Howard, Project Manager for VanPlay. “This presentation will share our process (including a new methodology to measure walkable catchments to parks   ) and our findings (including investigation into social and environmental equity, quality of service at a city-wide scale, and access to a range of parks and recreation experiences within a short walk from home)”. 

Children especially need access to nature and places they can play. For them to also be able to participate in planning and designing such spaces is at least as valuable as utilizing these spaces, argues Carlo Fabian, Professor at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland. The process benefits education, health, and democratic participation. Professor Fabian describes a participatory action research program carried out in Switzerland and focuses on the health benefits of participation.

As Sven von Ungern-Sternberg will explain, connection to nature and protection of nature were extremely high priorities in the planning of two new neighborhoods in Freiburg, Germany - Rieselfeld and Vauban. These have won several awards for their child-friendliness, especially in fostering independent mobility and play in nature. “Green fingers” that reach into the neighborhood are natural play areas with carefully placed rocks, tree trunks, sand pits and tree houses.

Rieselfeld also offers allotments (Schrebergärten) that residents may rent or own to grow their own food. These allotments are an early form of community gardens, with individual plots sometimes large enough for a small shed or shaded place for socializing. They are immensely popular, especially because so many people live in apartments or condos. They offer healthy food, exercise, social life, and they are good for the ecology.

Campbell River is a small community with a population of 35,000 on Vancouver Island, BC. To overcome the food dessert phenomena and ensure access to local, healthy food, the City has a goal to have a community garden located within each neighbourhood, and the capacity to be at least 10% self-sufficient in food production by the year 2032. Amber Zirnheld will discuss the City’s Food Map initiative to build social capital and neighbourhood connectedness, by developing a community focused around local food.

September 23 Park is a historic park in the high-density Center of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Eddie Wu from BH Architects will describe how this linear park, approximately 1 kilometer in length and 90 meters wide, is being regenerated from an open green space for passive recreation into a dynamic urban destination that ties together surrounding neighborhoods through commercial and cultural activities. Surrounding neighborhoods are also rapidly transitioning, making this a key initiative in defining the future of this part of the city.

In the previous blog we discussed some of the ways healthy neighborhoods facilitate independent mobility.

In the next blog we shall look at more of the issues to be raised at the 55th IMCL conference regarding the third rule of a healthy neighborhood:  Facilitate community social life.

[1] Nowak, D. J., Crane, D. E. & Stevens, J. C. Air pollution removal by urban trees and shrubs in the United States. Urban forestry & urban greening 4, 115–123 (2006)

[2] Kirkby, M. (1989) “Nature as Refuge in Children’s Environments.” Children’s Environments Quarterly 6 (1): 7-12.

[3] Kuo, F., & Faber Taylor, A. (2004). “A potential natural treatment for Attention- Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence from a national study.” American Journal of Public Health, 94(9), 1580-1586

[4] Wells, N. (2000) “At Home with Nature: Effects of ‘greenness’ on children’s cognitive functioning.” Environment and Behavior 32 (6): 775-795

[5] Huynh, Q et al (2013). Exposure to public natural space as a protective factor for emotional well-being among young people in Canada. BMC Public Health. 2013 Apr 29;13:407. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-13-407.

[6] Wells, N. & Evans. G. (2003) “Nearby nature: A buffer of life stress among rural children.” Environment and Behavior 35 (3): 311-330