Even though I was heading to a highly coveted job at the New York Times in 1965, I was heartbroken to leave Minneapolis, where I had begun my journalistic career two years earlier.
Minneapolis was then, and still is, a slice of heaven for anyone who enjoys the great outdoors. According to an ambitious project of the Trust for Public Land, Minneapolis leads the nation’s metropolitan areas in providing the best overall access for the most people to well equipped and serviced public parks and recreation. Its neighbor, St. Paul, is a close second.
Not surprising, then, that Minneapolis-St. Paul is also ranked the healthiest urban region in the country. And no, their residents are not preserved by the cold! If anything, they are out there enjoying it — ice skating, cross-country skiing, sledding, cycling, running, walking, you name it.
An analysis by the trust revealed that 96 percent of Minneapolitans and 98 percent of St. Paulites live within a 10-minute walk of a park, compared with 70 percent of residents in the 100 largest cities overall. New York City, with 99 percent of residents enjoying easy access to a park, playground, trail or other open area, ranks ninth overall in terms of public outdoor access when park size and other factors are considered.
Despite its generally good weather, Charlotte, N.C. (with an average temperature of 60 degrees, 218 sunny days and only 4 inches of snow and 41 inches of rain a year), has the poorest overall access to public lands among the 100 major metro areas studied. The analysis covered residents in 14,000 communities that the U.S. Census Bureau designates as “urban areas,” which are where approximately 85 percent of Americans now live.
Last year, in partnership with the National Recreation and Parks Association and Urban Land Institute, the trust started an initiative that could bring Minneapolis-type benefits to every resident in the country: access to “a high-quality park within a 10-minute, or half-mile, walk,” said Adrian Benepe, senior vice president for the trust and former New York City parks commissioner.
Thus far, more than 220 mayors, including those serving most of the nation’s largest cities, have signed on to support the project, which has the potential to do as much or more for citizens’ physical and mental health as anything Congress might pass.
“Parks are key to good, healthy cities,” Benepe said. “The connection between parks and health is well established.” A 10-minute walk can enhance physical fitness, reduce the risk of chronic disease and improve brain function, like learning and memory.
“Parks are the key to good public health and to the environmental health of cities,” Benepe said.
Hanaa Hamdi, the trust’s public health director, says research has shown that community green spaces can reduce violent crime; counter stress and social isolation, especially for older adults; improve concentration for children with attention deficit disorder; enhance relaxation, and promote self-esteem and resilience.
Hamdi said that 35 to 40 percent of health was determined by one’s physical environment, including public access to green spaces. Accordingly, the trust is collaborating with hospitals and community health workers to foster investment in open spaces and create programs that counter physical and mental illness.
One project, called Walk With a Doc, enlists physicians, nurses, nutritionists and social workers to take scheduled walks with patients who have Type 2 diabetes to help foster healthier lifestyles.
As an added benefit, Benepe said: “Parks mitigate the effects of climate change. Their trees absorb and store carbon and trap particulate matter on leaf surfaces. They absorb stormwater runoff, keeping it out of sewers and countering pollution, and they reduce the impact of the urban island heat effect.”
There are also untold social and community benefits linked to public park spaces. Two friends of mine, each of whom had a dog, met during off-leash hours in a Brooklyn park. They eventually married and became parents of two boys, who now frolic in the park, as well.
It’s not enough for an area to have lots of parks if people can’t get to them without using public or private transportation, the trust maintains. “People have to be able to walk there,” Benepe said. “They can’t grow wings to fly over a highway or river.”
Of the vast majority of Americans who live in cities and their suburbs, about two-thirds already have a park within a 10-minute walk. But that still leaves 110 million Americans who lack such access. Perhaps the biggest selling point for the nation’s mayors may be the fact that park access increases real estate values, which provides cities with a larger tax base.
Along with Minneapolis-St. Paul, the trust’s analysis suggests that the most livable urban areas in the country are Washington; Arlington, Va.; San Francisco; Portland, Ore.; Cincinnati; Chicago, and New York.