City parks offer numerous physical and mental health benefits, but many New Yorkers who live close to local parks rarely use them. Researchers from New York University set out to answer this conundrum and discovered many locals still don’t feel safe visiting city parks.
By day, a city park is a pretty inviting place; the birds are chirping, people are lounging, and on a good day the sun is shining. Come nightfall, though, many parks tend to take on a more ominous feel. Once the sun has gone down it can seem like there’s a threat lurking behind every dark shadow in a dimly lit park.
As such, many people avoid parks altogether, which is especially unfortunate considering all a park can offer the typical urbanite. Besides the study’s main finding that safety concerns stop many New Yorkers from visiting nearby parks, researchers also noted that the more often a person exercises in a park, the less depressed or anxious they report feeling.
Moreover, the closer a New Yorker lives to a park the more likely they are to use it unless they are concerned about their safety. If an individual feels like they would be unsafe visiting a park, it doesn’t matter if they live next door, they’re not going to visit the park at all.
“Living near a park may not be enough to improve your physical and mental well-being through exercise,” says lead study author Stephanie Orstad, Ph.D., a research assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at NYU Langone Health, in a release. “If we want to make the most of the abundant health benefits parks offer, then we need to make them not only accessible but also safe for everyone.”
So, in summation, exercising in local parks greatly improves New Yorkers’ mental health and locals are more likely to visit a city park if they live closeby. But, that all goes out the window if someone feels unsafe entering the park.
While this research was conducted in New York City, its findings can plausibly be applied to residents of cities all over the country. However, this isn’t the first study to find New Yorkers aren’t taking full advantage of the five boroughs’ parks due to safety concerns.
Over 3,800 NYC residents took part in this research. Each person’s mental health was assessed, and everyone was asked to estimate how long it would take them to walk to the nearest local park from their home. Additionally, participants were asked how often they use local parks to exercise or play sports.
Far more people who lived within a five minutes walking distance from a park said they exercise there “sometimes” or “often” in comparison to surveyed locals who lived 30 minutes or longer from the nearest park. Also, participants who described themselves as frequent park-goers usually dealt with one less day of poor mental health per month compared to New Yorkers who “rarely” or “never” exercise in parks.
Whenever a participant said they were concerned about park crime, though, the distance from their home to the park failed to have any influence at all. No matter how close the park is to home, New Yorkers won’t use it if they feel unsafe while there.
So, what can be done to fix this problem? The study’s authors say solutions like installing more lighting in parks at night, improving park cleaning services, funding more park programs, and building a stronger local community, can all help put locals’ concerns about park safety to rest.
“Investing in park safety offers a practical way of improving physical and mental health in different communities in the city, especially in areas where there are stigmas associated with seeking help,” concludes senior study author Melanie Jay, MD, MS, an associate professor in the Department of Medicine and Population Health at NYU Langone. “It takes advantage of resources that may already exist in the neighborhood.”
The full study can be found here, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.