Where Environmentalism Meets Public Health



Meet environmental activist Robert Zarr, shown here in a park in downtown D.C. He’s dressed for cycling because he rides his bike to work; his family as been car-free for 15 or so years.

But what makes him an environmental activist isn’t cycling or his other outdoor pursuits; it’s what he does to get people to go to parks and other natural areas – for their own health and to teach them to value nature.  As he wrote in “Why I Prescribe Nature, “I am not embarrassed to say that I want to save the planet.”

Dr. Zarr pursues that goal by prescribing spending time in nature to his patients at Unity Healthcare, DC’s largest provider, especially to its poorest residents.

The health benefits of being in nature have been all over the news this year (no surprise to us gardeners), and added to the already-recognized benefits of being active, the take-home is powerful: exercising in natural environments not only reduces incidence of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and obesity; it further decreases tension, confusion, anger and depression over exercising indoors.

So two years ago this pediatrician (and Unity Healthcare) started DC Park Rx to survey all the green spaces in the city and make it easy for physicians to prescribe visits to them for their patients by simply using an online tool that connects patient zipcodes with nearby green spaces.

rx10Dr. Zarr’s public-health-school volunteers surveyed 320 such green spaces in the city, way more than I’d have imagined or that are commonly known. Sadly, Zarr has found it all too common that patients are unaware of parks just blocks away from their homes.

On the left is an example of the 320 “park pages” in the Parks Rx’s Parkfinder. Soon they’ll also be accessible by residents on a Park Rx website, currently in development.

Results so far include more kids visiting parks, more parents who believe that physical activity affects their child’s health, and kids spending 22 more minutes each week in physical activity.

More documentation of results is in the works – because nothing moves public health practices like evidence. And this is a very low-cost health intervention that uses a known, trusted, currently underutilized resource – parks.

DC’s Meridan Hill Park hosts weekly drumming events. Dancing is encouraged.

Other Cities

While DC’s Park Rx may be the most advanced and is getting tons of publicity, there are similar moves by the health-care community to connect people with nature in other cities, as well. Portland has “Rx Play,” Baltimore has “Docs in the Park,” and a national agenda for Parks Rx is being considered. The park rating tool developed by DC Park Rx can be used anywhere.

Another effort is the National Park Service’s new  Healthy Parks Healthy People US program. NPS director Jonathan Jarvis notes that “Parks are part of a public health structure, and are under-utilized for that purpose.”

Public Health and Gardens

But what about gardens? I first contacted Dr. Zarr to pester him to include DC’s gardens among the green spaces that physicians prescribe for their patients. Here’s my pitch (which he immediately agreed with): that gardens also connect us with nature and provide the same proven benefits, with bonus points for being right outside our door or on our balcony, not out there someplace, or even blocks away to the nearest park. And gardeners don’t just spend time in nature and get exercise at the same time – they work with nature.  

After making my pitch for gardens and gardening I calmed down enough to brainstorm with Dr. Zarr about ways to promote all green spaces – parks, gardens and waterfronts – and the healthy activities people can engage in them, including gardening.

At the National Arboretum.

And there’s good news on this front – we’re seeing connections between garden-visiting and public health and fitness already happening. One exciting example is a new partnership between the National Arboretum and REI, which now-famously closed on Black Friday and urged everyone to OptOutside. (The partnership is thanks to the Arboretum’s resourceful new director and a friends-group exec who’s often called “visionary.”) REI has already sponsored a free jazz festival in the Arboretum and a Bring-Your-Own-Bike Tour of the Arboretum. Plus, DC’s popular Capital BikeShare is coming soon to the Arboretum.

Admittedly, most public gardens don’t have the Arboretum’s hundreds of acres to bike through, but many do have children’s gardens, grassy areas that could be used for play, and – what else? Your ideas are welcome!