The economic, health and social benefits of public parks

Economic benefits

A recent study on the impact of five Manhattan parks by real estate services firm CBRE found that asking rents in adjacent office towers were nearly 44% higher on average than in buildings a block away. The biggest premium was on the periphery of the rejuvenated Bryant Park. There, asking rents are 63% higher than they are a block away, not to mention 46% above the midtown average [source].

The success of the parks have also elevated the standing of its designers [source].

James Corner Field Operations moved to Manhattan from Philadelphia in 2003, the year after the fledgling firm won the competition to design the 2,200-acre Freshkills Park on Staten Island. Since then, the staff has ballooned to 40, an eightfold increase [source].

Freshkills, a 30-year, $650 million project to transform what was once the world’s largest landfill, is New York’s biggest park development in more than a century. But that project was quickly overshadowed by another that the company designed in 2004, the High Line park [source].

And now his firm’s projects extend from Qianhai Water City in Shenzhen, China, to London, where the firm recently opened an office to work on the legacy parks from the city’s Olympics [source].

Physical Health (economic benefits, too)

U.S. Forest Service and Davey Institute calculated the health and economic benefits of air-cleansing urban forests in 10 U.S. cities and found that trees save lives, reduce hospital visits, and reduce the number of days taken off work.  They do that mainly by sucking pollutants out of the air. Economic benefits, mostly from reduced mortality, ranged from $1.1 million a year in Syracuse, N.Y., to $60.1 million a year in New York City [source]. U.S Forest Service also found that loss of trees suggest increased mortality related to cardiovascular and lower-respiratory-tract illness. The finding adds to the growing evidence that the natural environment provides major public health benefits [source].

A large epidemiological study in Britain looked at mortality and morbidity among three income levels in relation to their access to green open space. The study examined about 360,000 deaths in a population of about 41 million. While it confirmed that wealthier individuals were generally healthier than those with lower incomes, it made another remarkable discovery: That all groups irrespective of income showed an improvement in health in proportion to their access to green space and that the differences in health status between income groups, who had equivalent access to progressively more green space, shrank favouring the lowest socio-economic group with the highest morbidity. In simple terms, everyone benefited but the lowest income group benefited the most. These striking results based on an exceptionally large sample confirm unambiguously the health-related effects of green space and suggest its importance as an element in neighbourhood layouts. Populations that are exposed to the greenest environments also have lowest levels of health inequality related to income deprivation which suggests that physical environments that promote good health might be important to reduce socioeconomic health inequalities. [source] [source].

A second epidemiological study in the Netherlands examined the health of 17,000 people in relationship to the presence of green space in their surroundings. It found that residents of neighbourhoods with abundant green space were, on average, healthier. This correlation was clearly evident in the general population but it was more pronounced among seniors, housewives and low-income people. Also significant was the correlation between health and the total amount of green space, which, in some cases, was located at a distance of 1–3 km from home [source] [source].

A third study took place in Tokyo, which is known for its very high building density. This was a longitudinal study that followed a group of 3,000, 70-year old citizens over five years. The presence of relatively plentiful green space in a neighbourhood correlated with a lower mortality risk. This correlation was stronger in a sub-sample of elderly people with few physical disabilities [source].

World Health Organization (WHO) has officially declared air pollution as carcinogen. WHO’s cancer research wing, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) called air pollution the most widespread environmental carcinogen and the worst. In 2010, lung cancer resulting from air pollution took the lives of 223,000 people worldwide. Besides lung cancer, it has been known for a while that air pollution increases the risk of bladder cancer, heart disease and respiratory ailments.  And there is only one way to stop it: Clean up the air [source].

Environmental benefits (economic benefits, too)

An additional 10 percent more green space could reduce surface temperatures by 7 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a team of British scientists. Extra parks and green roofs could counteract the predicted rise in temperature  until 2080 when summers are expected to be hotter and drier and winters wetter [source].

The restoration of Cheonggyechon, a stream in Seoul’s downtown, helps to cool down the temperature on the nearby areas by 3.6 °C on average versus other parts of Seoul [source].

Cognitive Intelligence 

Parks can also make you smarter!

According to a research at the University of Michigan, performance on memory and attention tests improved by 20% after study subjects paused for a walk through an arboretum. When these people were sent on a break to stroll down a busy street in town, no cognitive boost was detected [source].

Time spent in nature relieves mental fatigue specifically by restoring directed attention capacity, which is the ability to concentrate and pay focused, effortful attention. Like a muscle, directed attention capacity fatigues with exertion(such as through working, studying, or driving in traffic) and recovers with rest. The sights and sounds of nature absorb individuals effortlessly, during which time concentration rests and renews [source].

Mental Health

According to a University of Illinois study, interaction with nature has proven to reduce symptoms of ADD in children. According to research, “Overall, our findings indicate that exposure to ordinary natural settings in the course of common after-school and weekend activities may be widely effective in reducing attention deficit symptoms in children” [source].

Cornell University found that children who lived in high levels of nearby nature were more resilient to stress [source]. University of Michigan found that nurses who took breaks outside in settings that contained some nature has been shown to reduce stress, leaving them feeling refreshed, relaxed, and energized upon return to work [source].

Being outside in nature for just 20 minutes in a day is enough to significantly boost vitality levels, according to new University of Rochester psychology research. Being outside in nature makes people feel more alive [source].

The findings, adds Ryan, are important for both mental and physical health [source].

“Research has shown that people with a greater sense of vitality don’t just have more energy for things they want to do, they are also more resilient to physical illnesses. One of the pathways to health may be to spend more time in natural settings,” says Ryan [source].

Social benefits (economic benefits, too)

Viewing nature does not only have personal health benefits, but also broader social benefits. Another study from the University of Rochester argues that paying attention to the natural world makes people feel better and also makes them behave better [source].

The University of Illinois scientists have concluded that park like surroundings increase neighborhood safety by relieving mental fatigue and feelings of violence and aggression that can occur as an outcome of fatigue. The three classic symptoms of mental fatigue are inattentiveness, irritability, and poor impulse control, each of which has been previously linked to aggression [source].

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found that merely keeping sight of natural features improves self-discipline in inner-city girls [source].

The University of Rochester writes that 370 test subjects exposed to natural as opposed to man-made environments led people to “value community and close relationships and to be more generous with money” [source]. (Emphasis mine)

Lead author Netta Weinstein argues that the research findings illustrate the value of green space in cities [source].

“Incorporating parks and other representations of nature into urban environments may help build a stronger sense of community among residents.  To the extent that our links with nature are disrupted, we may also lose some connection with each other [source].”

The University of Rochester says the lack of green space in cities may explain higher levels of personal reservation, indifference, and estrangement in urban dwellers than rural dwellers [source].

A recent scientific study by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found that the more trees and grass in the common spaces of inner-city neighborhoods, the more those spaces are used by residents. And, use of these common spaces means more opportunities for informal social interaction. In other words, relationships between neighbors are made stronger simply through the presence of vegetation [source].

The study also found that, compared to residents living near barren spaces, those closer to green spaces enjoy more social activities, have more visitors, know more of their neighbors, and have stronger feelings of belonging. Essentially, greener common areas facilitate the development and maintenance of stronger social ties – the very fabric of a healthy neighborhood [source].

At the moment many people in Kuala Lumpur, especially the young, feel alienated by the high class development enveloping their neighbourhood. If we are not careful, we could have riot and looting happening in the streets just like in 2011 London riots.


In a Quality of Life Survey conducted in 1998 by the Kuala Lumpur City Hall, respondents expressed a high level of dissatisfaction with regards to accessibility of recreational facilities and the low level of social interaction and integration in the city (CHKL 2003) [source].

An African proverb says it best,

“If the young are not initiated into the village, they will burn it down just to feel its warmth.”

BBC News reported that one of the main causes of the London riot 2011 was because many of London’s teenagers  “lack hope” and “feel let down by society” [source].

Former Haringey youth leader Areeb Ullah, 19, from Tottenham, north London, said:

“If the young people cared about the area they lived in, they wouldn’t have acted in that way. But they don’t care about the society around them. People are fed up with the social deprivation and lack of investment in the area,” added Mr Ullah [source].

According to The Independent, the young could attack their own community with such disregard because they feel they don’t actually belong to the community. Community, they would say, has nothing to offer them [source].

“It costs money to care. But it also costs money to clear up riots, savagery and antisocial behaviour. I leave it to you to do the financial and moral sums,” writes Camila Batmanghelidjh [source]. (Her name’s Batman… hehehe *mudah terhibur*)

The passage below is about Rio but one could easily substitute Rio with Kuala Lumpur:

Rio is becoming a playground for the rich, and inequality breeds instability. It would be much more cost-effective to invest in urban improvements that communities help shape through a participatory democratic process. This would ultimately strengthen Rio’s economy and improve its infrastructure while also reducing inequality and empowering the city’s still marginalized Afro-Brazilian population [source].

With countless journals expounding the merits of urban parks, it’s mind-boggling why our government does not devote more land space for them.

Do you know how little green space we have in Kuala Lumpur?

According to the Kuala Lumpur Structure Plan 2020 published in 2003, parks and forest reserves, represents only 6.5 per cent of total land use in the capital city. The actual amount of green space available to the public out of the 6.5 per cent, is even less when golf courses are excluded. Furthermore, the plan noted that there has been a steady decline in public open space in the city centre largely because of conversion to other uses [source].

In the Draft Kuala Lumpur City Plan 2020 released in 2008, the city expressed a vision of “a network of high quality, accessible parks and green spaces which promote recreation, health, education and economic regeneration, helping to make Kuala Lumpur a significantly more attractive city in which to live and work” (CHKL 2008).  The city plans to increase its parks and open spaces from the current 6.5 per cent of Kuala Lumpur’s total area, to 8 per cent in 2020 [source].

Pfft… Janji tinggal janji.


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