Tag Archives: park

Experiencing wilderness keeps us happy, so we should protect it even in cities

Experiencing wilderness is particularly important for physical and mental health finds new research led by the University of Washington (UW).

Lighthouse at the Discovery Park, Seattle.
Image credits Michael Camilleri / Flickr.

We’ve gradually lost touch with nature as our cities grew wide and tall around us. The luckier among us city dwellers might live close to a park, or on a green-roofed building, giving us some access to natural areas; but wild ones are virtually non-existent. A new study reports that exposure to wilderness is an important factor for human physical and mental health, especially so in urban landscapes, even compared to other types of natural areas.

Wild at heart

“It was clear from our results that different kinds of nature can have different effects on people,” said lead author Elizabeth Lev, a graduate student in the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

“The wilder areas in an urban park seem to be affording more benefits to people — and their most meaningful interactions depended on those relatively wild features.”

The study focused on the Discovery Park in Seattle, the largest in the city (roughly 500 acres in size). The park is situated about 20 minutes by car from Seattle’s downtown areas, and has faced the same development pressures as others in cities with growing populations, the team explains. The research was prompted by the park’s advisory board, which asked the team to find out which elements are most important for park-goers in order to better inform decision-makers.

Despite focusing on this single park, the team is confident that their findings hold over well for most other major cities and beyond.

“We looked at Discovery Park, but this is about the entire planet,” said senior author Peter Kahn, a UW professor of environmental and forest sciences and psychology. “Everywhere, development is chipping away at wild areas. Humanity has caused so much destruction and there’s no stopping it — unless we stop.”

“We’re trying to show that if you’re going to develop an area, you at least need to understand the human costs.”

The team asked several hundred visitors to the park to submit a written online summary of a meaningful interaction they had at Discovery Park, obtaining 320 submissions. Then they set about coding these experiences into several categories (which the researchers call “interaction patterns”) to allow for better handling of the data. For example, an account stating “we sat and listened to the waves at the beach for a while” was assigned to the categories “sitting at beach” and “listening to waves.”

They found that six categories were consistently rated as important to visitors. These included encountering wildlife, walking alongside a body of water, enjoying the view, or following an established trail. They further looked at how the wilderness component factored into these experiences, finding that it had a role to play in nearly every interaction the visitors reported on. For example, “spotting bald eagle” references a relatively wild bird, and “watching birds perched on an old-growth tree,” denotes a wild habitat.

Additionally, the researchers looked at whether the park’s relative wildness was important in each visitor’s most meaningful experiences in the park. They defined “relatively wild” as including Discovery Park’s varied and relatively unmanaged land, its high levels of biodiversity, its “big nature” like old growth trees, large open spaces, expansive vistas, and people’s experience of the park’s solitude and removal from civilization.

The team explains that it’s important to know what these interactions are and what makes them valuable to us, so that we may better recognize and engage in them. Walking along the water’s edge on a weekend may be very fulfilling, but it’s not really an option most of us have on a busy weekday — but more ‘tame’ versions of it, such as walking along a fountain or other water feature to unwind, are.

“We’re losing the language of interaction with nature and, as we do, we also lose the cultural practice of these deep forms of interaction with nature, the wellsprings of human existence,” Kahn said.

“We’re trying to generate a nature language that helps bring these human-nature interactions back into our daily lives. And for that to happen, we also need to protect nature so that we can interact with it.”

It’s definitely an interesting study, and I do personally like the idea of mixing in more natural spaces in our lives. But as out cities become ever more crowded and space ever more expensive, there’s bound to be intense pressure to turn parks and recreational areas into more ‘productive’ landscapes. Studies such as this one go a long way towards reminding us that efficiency and profit aren’t the only ingredients of a good life; sometimes, happiness is as simple as sitting down and looking at an old tree.

The paper “Relatively Wild Urban Parks Can Promote Human Resilience and Flourishing: A Case Study of Discovery Park, Seattle, Washington” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Cities.

Central Park.

Urban parks make people ‘as happy as Christmas’ — at least on Twitter

A quick walk in the park may just be the emotional pick-me-up you need.

Image credits Maleah Land.

The first study of its kind shows that those who visited an urban park use happier language and express less negativity on Twitter than before the visit. This boost in mood, the paper further reports, can last for up to four hours afterward.

Christmas come early

“We found that, yes, across all the tweets, people are happier in parks,” says Aaron Schwartz, a University of Vermont (UVM) graduate student who led the new research, “but the effect was stronger in large regional parks with extensive tree cover and vegetation.”

The effect is definitely strong — the team found that the increase in happiness people derived from visiting an area of urban nature was equivalent to the mood spikes seen on Christmas day (which they explain is by far the happiest day of the year on Twitter). Given that more and more of us live and work in the city — and given the growing rate of mood disorders we experience — the findings can help inform public health and urban planning strategies.

For the study, the team spent three months analyzing hundreds of tweets daily that were posted from 160 parks in San Francisco. Visitors showed the effects of elevated mood in their posts after visiting any one of these urban nature areas. Smaller neighborhood parks showed a more modest spike in positive mood, while mostly-paved civic plazas and squares showed the least mood elevation.

This suggests that it wasn’t merely going out of work, or being outside, that caused the boost in mood. The team says areas with more vegetation had the most pronounced impact, noting that one of the words that shows the biggest uptick in use in tweets from parks is “flowers.”

“In cities, big green spaces are very important for people’s sense of well-being,” says Schwartz.

“We’re seeing more and more evidence that it’s central to promoting mental health,” says Taylor Ricketts, a co-author on the new study and director of the Gund Institute for Environment at UVM.

The study’s findings are important as they quantify the benefits of natural areas beyond immediate monetary gains (i.e. “how many dollars of flood damage did we avoid by restoring a wetland?”) and look at its direct effects on public health.

Image via Pixabay.

The team used an online instrument called a hedonometer — invented by a team of scientists at UVM and The MITRE Corporation — to gather and analyze the tweets. The instrument uses a body of about 10,000 common words that have been scored by a large pool of volunteers for what the scientists call their “psychological valence,” a kind of measure of each word’s emotional temperature.

The volunteers ranked words they perceived as the happiest near the top of a 1-9 scale, with sad words near the bottom. Each word’s final score was calculated by averaging the volunteers’ responses. “Happy”, for example, ranked 8.30, “hahaha” 7.94, and “parks” 7.14. Neutral words like “and” and “the” scored 5.22 and 4.98. At the bottom were “trapped” 3.08, “crash” 2.60, and “jail” 1.76.

Using these scores, the team combed through the tweets of 4,688 users who publicly identify their location and were geotagged with latitude and longitude in the city of San Francisco (so they could pinpoint exactly which park they were tweeting from).

“Then, working with the U.S. Forest Service, we developed some new techniques for mapping vegetation of urban areas–at a very detailed resolution, about a thousand times more detailed than existing methods,” says study co-author Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne, director of UVM’s Spatial Analysis Laboratory in the UVM Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and a co-author on the new study.

“That’s what really enabled us to get an accurate understanding of how the greenness and vegetation of these urban areas relates to people’s sentiment there.”

Overall, the tweets posted from urban parks in San Francisco were 0.23 points happier on the hedonometer scale over the baseline. The increase is “equivalent to that of Christmas Day for Twitter as a whole in the same year,” the scientists write.

Exactly why parks have this effect on people isn’t fully understood — and wasn’t the object of the present study. Regardless of how it happens, the results suggest that people tend to be happier in nature. That’s a finding “that may help public health officials and governments make plans and investments,” says UVM’s Aaron Schwartz.

The paper “Visitors to urban greenspace have higher sentiment and lower negativity on Twitter” has been published in the journal People and Nature.

Central Park.

Go to the park, it’s good for you — and makes you happier

New research shows that a 20-minute long visit to the park can make you happier, whether you exercise or not.

Central Park.

Image via Pixabay.

A team of researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Occupational Therapy says that urban parks are great for our emotional and mental wellbeing. Visiting an urban park for as little as 20 minutes will make you feel happier, they say, no matter what you do during that time.

Parking space for your stress

“Overall, we found park visitors reported an improvement in emotional well-being after the park visit,” says main author Hon K. Yuen. “However, we did not find levels of physical activity are related to improved emotional well-being. Instead, we found time spent in the park is related to improved emotional well-being.”

The study points to urban parks as key neighborhood elements, providing residents with the opportunity to enjoy nature and engage in physical activity. Contact with nature and health-promoting and/or social and recreational activities in parks let people reap benefits such as stress reduction and recovery from mental fatigue.

Data for the study was recorded in three urban parks — Overton, Jemison, and Cahaba River Walk Parks — in Mountain Brook, Alabama. These three parks were selected as they were the main three public parks in the town and saw a large volume of visitors each day. The team collected feedback from 98 park visitors, although four reported twice during the study and their second responses were excluded — thus, the team worked with data from 94 participant testimonies.

The findings suggest that everybody can benefit from some park-time. You don’t need to be physically active during your time there, so individuals can gain the health benefits of spending time in an urban park regardless of any disability or limitation they may be struggling with.

Yuen says that the study definitely has its limitations — these include the lack of objective data (as it was self-reported) pertaining to the visit’s effect on health and emotional well-being, and the study’s limited scope, both in number of participants and geographic spread. Still, the findings are exciting, he says, and point to the need for more urban parks and better conservation work on those already in place.

“There is increasing pressure on green space within urban settings,” said Jenkins. “Planners and developers look to replace green space with residential and commercial property. The challenge facing cities is that there is an increasing evidence about the value of city parks but we continue to see the demise of theses spaces.”

The paper “Factors associated with changes in subjective well-being immediately after urban park visit” has been published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research.

Kent Bass Harbor.

Climate change is affecting national parks much more than the rest of the US

America’s national parks are baking — more than the rest of the country, a new study from UC Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin-Madison reports.

Kent Bass Harbor.

Bass Harbor Head Light in Acadia National Park.
Image credits NPS / Kent Miller.

Anthropic climate change is exposing the nation’s national parks to conditions that are both hotter and drier than the rest of the USA, the authors report. The paper represents the first effort to quantify the magnitude of climate change on all 417 parks in the system. According to the team, without decisive action to limit greenhouse gas emissions, many small mammals and plants that make their homes in these parks may be brought to the brink of extinction by the end of the century.

Parkticularly hot

Over the last century, average temperatures in national parks increased twice as fast as it did in all other regions of the USA; national parks also experienced the largest decrease in annual rainfall levels. Under a business-as-usual scenario, the team projects that temperatures in the most exposed national parks could increase by as much as 9° Celsius (16° Fahrenheit) by 2100.

Worryingly, this rate of change outstrips the ability of many small plant and mammal species to migrate to other lands.

“Human-caused climate change is already increasing the area burned by wildfires across the western U.S., melting glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park and shifting vegetation to higher elevations in Yosemite National Park,” said Patrick Gonzalez, the paper’s first author. “The good news is that, if we reduce our emissions […] and meet the Paris Agreement goal, we can keep the temperature increase in national parks to one-third of what it would be without any emissions reductions.”

Gonzalez is also an associate adjunct professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley and a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, a summary of the most up-to-date scientific knowledge of climate change.

The analysis included all 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and four territories in the Caribbean and Pacific. The team also drew on monthly temperature and rainfall recorded by weather stations throughout the U.S. since 1895. Using this data, climate researchers created maps of the average annual temperature and rainfall totals over much of the United States.

Starting from the maps, the team calculated historical temperature and rainfall trends within the parks and over the U.S. as a whole. Temperatures in national parks increased by a little over 1° Celsius from 1895 to 2010, they report — roughly double the warming experienced by the rest of the country. Annual rainfall levels dropped by more than 12% over national parkland, compared to 3% over land in the rest of the country. Alaska and its national parks saw the most dramatic increases in temperature, while rainfall decreased most in Hawaii.

Location matters

Map national parks.

Image via Maps of World.

The team says this discrepancy is a function of where these parks are located. Many are found in deserts, high mountains, or in the Arctic region of Alaska — climates that are the hardest hit by global warming.

“National parks aren’t a random sample — they are remarkable places and many happen to be in extreme environments,” Gonzalez said. “Many are in places that are inherently more exposed to human-caused climate change.”

The team also mapped the projected future changes for both temperature and precipitation under climate models representing each of four climate change scenarios developed by the IPCC. These include a scenario where no action has been taken to reduce emissions, one that is consistent with the Paris Agreement, and two that are intermediates between these extremes.

Under the business as usual scenario, average temperatures of all the national parks (taken together) is projected to increase between 5° and 7° Celsius. The Paris Agreement scenario would limit this rise to between 1° and 3° Celsius. Temperatures would increase most in Alaska and its national parks and decrease most in the Virgin Islands and the southwestern U.S. for both scenarios.

To analyze the other two scenarios, the team “downscaled” the climate models in order to obtain more detailed maps of future climate trends within the parks. While the climate models themselves use resolutions of approximately 100 to 400 kilometers, the downscaled data have resolutions of 100 to 800 meters over most of the country. These maps can help park service employees plan for future vulnerabilities to climate change, safeguarding endangered species and other park resources by developing measures to protect against wildfires and controlling invasive species.

“The park service is already integrating this climate change information into their planning and resource management,” said Fuyao Wang, a research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“It is important to note that even if we really do a strong mitigation of greenhouse gases, the national park system is still expected to see a 2 degree temperature change,” said John Williams, a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “At this point, it is likely that the glaciers in Glacier National park will ultimately disappear, and what is Glacier National park if it doesn’t have glaciers anymore? So I think this adds weight to the importance of reducing our future levels of climate change and also extends the National Park Service mission to both adapt to these changes and educate all of us about these changes.”

The paper “Disproportionate magnitude of climate change in United States national parks” has been published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Urban green spaces provide crucial environmental services, new study confirms

Image credits: Dorcha / Wikipedia.

Green spaces in cities are often overlooked when considering environmental services, but their role is underestimated, according to Carly Ziter.

Ziter is a biology graduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and while many biologists focus on remote areas or pristine forests, she spends most of her days roaming the city where she collects her samples and talks to people. In a recent study, she reports that urban green spaces like backyards, city parks, and golf courses really need to be taken into account when we’re considering the environmental services provided by the natural world.

“Often when we’re doing regional studies of ecosystem services or the ways that nature benefits us, we ignore the cities,” Ziter says. “We treat the city as this kind of gray box; quite literally on maps, it’s often a gray box. And what we’ve discovered here is that … we need to be thinking about the city as part of the landscape.”

We all like green gardens and parks, but we might not consider them to be “real” nature, which can lead to a lack of appreciation. However, to understand how useful and important these resources are, Ziter gathered soil samples from 100 sites around the city of Madison, Wisconsin, analyzing them to see what kind of services they were providing (e.g. carbon storage and flood mitigation).

[panel style=”panel-primary” title=”Panel title” footer=””]Ecosystem services are the many and varied benefits that humans freely gain from the natural environment and from properly-functioning ecosystems.

Collectively, these benefits are being called ‘ecosystem services’, and are often integral to the wellbeing of society. However, they are notoriously difficult to study and quantify.


She gathered samples from cemeteries, botanical gardens, and backyards — lots and lots of backyards.

Everywhere she looked, she found evidence of these environmental services. Forests and grasslands, for instance, help with flood control, allowing the water to seep into the soil where roots help to store it instead of running down into the sewage. Forests also help improve water and soil quality by providing natural filtration and vegetative cover that minimizes soil erosion and sediment runoff, and all green areas contribute to carbon storage.

She also found a great diversity between different soils and plants, even those lying very close to each other.

“My front yard and my backyard can be more different in terms of their ecology than two houses across the city from one another,” Ziter says. “And that’s really fascinating from a management perspective because it’s these small decisions people are making as individuals that are shaping the ecology of these landscapes.”

Aside from practical, pragmatic services, these green areas are also helping us in more subtle ways — not just physically, but also mentally. Interacting with green places promotes physical health, mental well-being and overall quality of life, she adds.

“If you’re out gardening, you’re interacting with the natural world. If you’re going out for a walk along the lake, you’re interacting with the natural world. We often think of nature as being in these big wild spaces, but there are a lot of smaller day-to-day interactions that we don’t realize are fostering a connection to our environment,” Ziter says.

Ziter hopes that this will inspire more researchers to study these urban green spaces but unfortunately, she adds, going out and talking to people isn’t necessarily something many researchers are willing to do. As the joke has it — I got into academia to learn stuff and write papers, not to talk to people.

“I had to get permission for every single one of my hundred sites within the city,” she says. “And that meant speaking one-on-one with upwards of 100 people, and that’s everyone from Joe Next Door to the golf course superintendent to a church group that manages a prairie restoration.”

The study will be published in the journal Ecosystem Applications.

Poachers kill three rangers, wound park manager in Congo

Sad news comes from African wildlife parks again: three rangers were killed in Democratic Republic of Congo’s Garamba wildlife park. Two others were wounded, including the park manager.

Brave rangers risk their life every day to protect Africa’s wildlife. Credit: Flickr Enough Project

Just yesterday we were writing that African park rangers risk their life on a day-to-day basis to protect animals in natural parks, and now this tragedy was reported – and this happens. Armed poachers entered the UNESCO world heritage site, opening fire on the park rangers. Dimba Richard, Anigobe Bagare, and Matikuli Tsago were killed in the firefight, while park manager Erik Mararv, 30, and ranger Kenisa Adrobiago are in the hospital, but stable. U.S. forces in the area evacuated the others, but couldn’t save the three rangers.

‘We are devastated by this latest loss. Rangers put their lives on the line each and every day, and are under real siege in Garamba protecting elephants from heavily incentivized and militarized poaching gangs who threaten the very survival of humans and wildlife alike’ African Parks chief executive Peter Fearnhead said in a statement.

Killing for ivory

If you’re wondering why people did this, the answer is simple: ivory. Some 30,000 elephants are killed every year to supply ivory to the black markets in Asia, especially China. Elephant numbers have dropped by 60% in the past decade alone, and if the trend continues, there’s a definite change they will go extinct in the near future.

Unfortunately, protecting these majestic creatures in their natural habitat is extremely different and African countries don’t have a particularly good infrastructure for this. Brave men and women risk their life every day, but sometimes this simply isn’t enough. They are understaffed and underequipped, fighting a growing number of poachers equipped with weapons.

“Rangers put their lives on the line each and every day, and are under real siege in Garamba protecting elephants from heavily incentivized and militarized poaching gangs,” African Parks chief executive Peter Fearnhead said in a statement.

Without massive outside investments, there is no solution in sight.

City of Hamburg to build public green spaces atop of noisy highway and become car free in 20 years

Three public parks will cover an Autobahn (highway) that passes through the city of Hamburg, in Germany. The 8,000-mile road network runs through Hamburg’s city center, dividing the city into an eastern and western half and creating a lot of disturbing noise. The problem will be solve through the addition of the green spaces.

Image via Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment

The highway causes two main problems – first of all, it breaks the city’s continuity for pedestrians, and second of all, it creates a lot of pollution (dust, dirt, air pollution and noise pollution). As part of an effort to green the city, Hamburg will will build covers on three separate sections of the Autobahn. This will allow pedestrians not only to cross the street and be rid of most of the noise and air pollution, but also enjoy some new parks.

Hamburg is currently working on a plan that would eliminate the need for cars within the next 15-20 years, creating one of the most eco friendly and healthiest cities in the world. The city is working on a green network which will allow people on foot or riding a bike to access all the routes in the city. The Guardian explains:

“[Hamburg] envisions a network that doesn’t just help residents get from point A to point B in a sustainable fashion,” with city spokesperson Angelika Fritsch adding “It will offer people opportunities to hike, swim, do water sports, enjoy picnics and restaurants, experience calm and watch nature and wildlife right in the city. That reduces the need to take the car for weekend outings outside the city.”

Hamburg wants to create a green network and become car free within 20 years. Image via ArchDaily.

These parks ontop of the highway will be embedded into the green network. The redesign will cover 3 km (2 miles) of the Autobahn, giving 60 acres (0.2 square km) of new green space back to the people of Hamburg. There is also an economic upside to this (aside for improving life quality) – the German government projects about 2,000 new homes can be built around the parkland.

What do you think about this initiative?

The world’s first underground park, New York City is taking shape [Image Gallery]

In case you didn’t know, developers from New York are working on creating the world’s first underground park using innovative solar technology to illuminate an historic trolley terminal on the Lower East Side of New York City. The project will only be finished in 2018, but it is already starting to take shape, as you can see below:

The 116-year-old abandoned trolley terminal.

Work is already well underway at the former trolley terminal, located under the eastbound roadway of Delancey Street on the Lower East Side, adjacent to the Essex Street station (J M Z trains).

Natural light will be directed below ground using fiber optics—described in the proposed plan as “remote skylights” to provide an area in which trees and grass could be grown beneath the city streets. The point is to have an actual park, with vegetation and all.

Here’s how the mechanism works.

… and here’s how it looks like.

This image shows how the park will look like. Light collectors would be placed at ground level, and artificial light will be used whenever necessary.

During the periods when the Sun is shining, electricity would not be necessary to light the space and the plants would grow “naturally”.

The project has been supported by many local politicians and organizations. In September 2012, the Lowline team built a full scale prototype of the technology in an abandoned warehouse in the Lower East Side, for the “Imagining the Lowline” exhibit.

The exhibit attracted thousands of visitors and ultimately served as a proof of concept. However, I’m not sure how sustainable this project is, and just how much extra energy will have to be invested in the development of the plants.

But the results will certainly be spectacular – when the Lowline will open in 2018, it will be a sight to behold, and available for everyone to enjoy.

If these images haven’t convinced you already, here’s a video about the Lowline – the only underground park in the world: