The Nature Fix: Our Public Lands

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With ever-increasing evidence that time outdoors is a panacea for common ailments, protecting—and visiting—our shared open spaces is more important than ever.

This September, some 4 million fourth-graders will be eligible to receive free passes to America’s national parks. Through this annual effort, Federal Land Management agencies strive to help create the next generation of park visitors and advocates. Called America’s best idea by writer Wallace Stegner, the national parks lure young and old with promises of awe-filled scenery, glimpses of wildlife, recreation and an opportunity for solitude. As anyone who has visited national parks and public lands knows, the feeling can be downright medicinal—an effect that has been argued for centuries and is now being proven by researchers around the world.

Just a few months after the Civil War ended in 1865, the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted argued for preserving America’s most scenic lands. Although best known for his pastoral city park designs, Olmsted understood bigger expanses of public lands were also important for two unexpected benefits: mental health and democracy. He wrote a plea to the California legislature to protect the Yosemite Valley because it was a unifying and quintessentially American space. "It is a scientific fact,” he wrote, “that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character … not only gives pleasure for the time being but increases the subsequent capacity for happiness and the means of securing happiness.” Moreover, he said, these spaces would enable us to get along better by helping us “maintain a temperate, good-natured, and healthy state of mind.”

In short, Nature was essential for civilization, Olmsted argued. In 1890, the U.S. Congress agreed, designating Yosemite the country’s second national park. (Yellowstone was designated in 1872.) Today, Americans share almost one million square miles of public land, including 58 million acres roadless areas and 130,000 miles of trails. And there’s more evidence than ever that we should use them—today's research is backing up Olmsted’s claims about the link between nature and mental well-being.

In short, nature was essential for civilization.

In a series of studies spanning the last three decades, researchers in Japan led by physiological anthropologist Yoshifumi Miyazaki at Chiba University sent 420 subjects to stroll in 35 different nationally protected forests for about 15 minutes. The results? On average, participants experienced a 12 percent decrease in cortisol (often called the stress hormone), a 7 percent drop in flight-or-fight nervous system responses and a 6 percent drop in heart rate.

If being in green spaces is so good for us, you might expect to see lower death rates in people who live close to them. That’s in fact what public health researchers are finding, at least in large studies of urban parks. In a study published in The Lancet, epidemiologists Richard Mitchell and Frank Popham at the University of Glasgow looked at health and geographical data from 40 million people. They found a 4 to 5 percent drop in heart disease in neighborhoods closest to parks, forests and river corridors (even after adjusting for income). A similar study at Harvard University found a 12 percent drop in mortality in women living closer to greenery compared to those living further away.

Experts believe less stress and depression led to these gains in health.

It’s taken 150 years for Olmsted’s ideas to gain traction in the American medical establishment, but it’s happening now. In a number of U.S. cities, doctors are prescribing time in national and regional parks for their patients, particularly children, as an innovative and effective way to treat chronic diseases, like obesity and depression. Nooshin Razani, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Oakland, has forged a partnership with local parks so urban families can find transportation and join programs with park rangers. There are about 35 park prescription programs nationwide and growing.

“I happen to believe that nature as a true medical intervention is not just a fad. It should be a public health priority to use time in nature in a clinical sense,” Razani said.

It’s all the more reason why we should hope those fourth-graders grab their new parks passes and head out, inspiring as many of their aunties, uncles, siblings and the rest of us to explore our precious and wild public lands.

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