Study Cites Health Benefits of Urban River Parkways

From Urban River Parkways An Essential Tool for Public Health UCLA Center for Occupational and Environmental Health

Urban river parkways may particularly benefit health in urban environments where access to open spaces is limited and adverse health effects such as obesity and depression are prevalent.

by American Trails Staff


The scenic nature of trails along rivers is a power attraction for residents of the urban area (Eugene, OR); photo by Stuart Macdonald

Urban River Parkways: An Essential Tool for Public Health, by UCLA’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, suggests that investing in bikeways and greenways can reduce the health costs of physical inactivity in our cities. The report notes that "From current evidence, we find that urban river parkways can improve physical, mental, and community health, and that they are particularly important in offering opportunity for 'green exercise'—physical activity in the presence of nature."

River parkways are defined as "areas of connective trails and natural areas along rivers and creeks that link homes, parks, workplaces, and schools." River parkways can offer aesthetic features and help support the ecosystem, but little research has been conducted to assess potential human health benefits of parkways.

Urban river parkways may particularly benefit health in urban environments where access to open spaces is limited and adverse health effects such as obesity and depression are prevalent. This report identifies and evaluates if and how urban river parkways affect physical, mental, community, and environmental health. In an effort to evaluate the health benefits of river parkways, literature reviews and field observations were conducted to evaluate the effects of communities residing along urban rivers.

Benefits of urban river parkways

As modern life becomes increasingly depleting of physical and mental energy, in part through demands on human capacity for attentiveness, conditions in our “built” environments amplify human tendencies to limit our physical activity. These conditions make us more vulnerable to stress, anxiety, depression, and even aggressive behaviors.

River trails provide convenient places for exercise for city residents (Philadelphia, PA); photo by Stuart Macdonald

River trails provide convenient places for exercise for city residents (Philadelphia, PA); photo by Stuart Macdonald

The report attempts to address the degree to which creating and maintaining places for respite and recreation improves health. These efforts are aligned with the intentions of the Olmsted Brothers and Bartholomew & Associates, who in 1930 envisioned a Los Angeles surrounded by a coordinated system of easily accessible and connected outdoor spaces and parkways.

Many urban parts of the United States, particularly in lower socioeconomic areas of California, have limited open green spaces and trails and also little access to water features. We explore these lost opportunities and consider remedies. We also examine the degree to which ill-considered environments reduce the human capacity to develop and maintain healthy behaviors.

Urban river parkways help to mitigate environmental threats from heat islands, and from air and water pollutants; they have the additional benefit of supporting wildlife and plant diversity and enriching the outdoor experience. There is increasing research regarding negative health impacts from failure to include the components of river parkways in city plans. River parkways consist of trails and park spaces along rivers and other water bodies that connect not just park lands, nature preserves, and recreation spaces, but also residences, schools, civic buildings, retail, workplaces, and transit centers. This report explores how the creation of urban river parkways is an essential tool for improving community health.

Greenways make a powerful contribution to efforts to create more healthy and liveable cities (Denver, Colorado); photo by Stuart Macdonald

Greenways make a powerful contribution to efforts to create more healthy and liveable cities (Denver, Colorado); photo by Stuart Macdonald

Conclusions

Urban river parkways can significantly advance public health and wellness by providing attractive places for residents to recreate and embrace more active lifestyles. Trails and pathways along rivers facilitate active recreation and commuting by walking, bicycling, or local transit. Accordingly, river parkways counter sedentary behaviors and factors linked to obesity, diabetes, loss of muscle mass, and other life-threatening chronic diseases.

Furthermore, green exercise helps combat mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety in adults and promotes imagination, focused-thinking, and creativity in children. River parkways encourage communities to reconnect with nature while also improving the local environment to combat health issues related to the urban heat island effect and air and water pollution.

However, the existence of river parkways alone does not directly constitute healthy communities; the design of parkways needs to be addressed to ensure use and safety. Without incorporating aesthetic, multi-use, and safety features, people will not be motivated to use the facilities provided. Well maintained landscape, adequate lighting, and safe routes are essential for communities to fully benefit from the healthy activities made possible by river parkways. The synergy between physical activity, exposure to the natural environment, and effective infrastructure design make urban river parkways an invaluable source of mental and physical health benefits.