Protected Areas for healthier people

Healthy Parks Healthy People an initiative pioneered by IUCN Member Parks Victoria an Australian park management agency promotes contact with nature as a proactive public health strategy. Healthy Parks Healthy People recognises that individual and community health are reliant on a healthy parks system and that the success of the healthy parks system depends on the value and recognition placed on it by the community which in return will promote enhanced conservation of parks and protected areas.

Swiss Alps Photo: Rafal Obrzud

This is not a new way of thinking; our ancestors had already understood the link between people and their environment. However, people today have grown away from nature, and their lifestyles are not only unsustainable for their health but also for the health of the planet.

Today's world faces many challenges– pollution, global warming, population growth, plant and animal extinction, deforestation and increasingly ‘modern’ diseases such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, depression and stress. A healthy natural environment is key to resolving these challenges and protected areas are the healthiest environments. Whilst the central role that parks and other protected areas contribute to biodiversity conservation is well understood there are many other benefits provided by protected areas that much less widely recognized.

  • Stress related anxiety disorders are the fastest growing mental health issue.
    • Exposure to natural environments, such as park, enhances the ability to cope with and recover from stress, and recover from illness and injury.
  • In 2007, for the first time urban population exceeded rural population globally.
    • People have a more positive outlook on life and higher satisfaction when in proximity to nature (particularly in urban areas)
  • Medical research and advances are at their most progressed in human history.
    • Established methods of nature-based therapy like wilderness or animal assisted therapy have success healing patients who have not previously responded to treatment.
  • Billions of dollars annually are spent on weight loss and related services, like gyms.
    • Joggers who exercise in a natural green setting with trees, foliage and landscape views, feel more restored, and less anxious, angry and depressed that people who burn the same amount of calories in gyms or other built settings.
  • Working hours (and work complexity) are increasing in developed nations.
    • Observing nature can restore concentration and improve productivity.
  • Preventative health is an important initiative, both at a personal level and broader scale.
    • There are about 670,000 preventable hospital admissions every year in Australia alone. The Oxford Health Alliance estimates 36 million premature deaths can be averted by action addressing chronic non communicable diseases like heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
  • People enjoy visiting landmark national parks whilst on vacation.
    • Tourism in protected areas provides significant economic benefit to both regional areas and economies as a whole. For example, if the Cape Tribulation section of the Daintree National Park in Australia did not exist, it is estimated that over A$100 million per annum in visitor expenditure would be lost from the region.

The Healthy Parks Healthy People philosophy envisages many sectors- health, environment, parks, development, education – working together to provide a better outcome for all. To this end, Parks Victoria supported research to pull together a body of evidence and case studies on the health benefits that derive from contact with nature.

Since first conceived by Parks Victoria in Victoria Australia in 1999 a host of parks services around the world have developed an approach encompassing the Healthy Parks Healthy People philosophy. Forums and conferences across and increasingly outside the parks industry are now seeking to feature Healthy Parks Healthy People on their agendas. Recognising the importance of the philosophy at the World Conservation Congress in Barcelona in 2008, IUCN chose Healthy Environment Healthy People as one of the key themes of the event. As an outcome, the IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas established a Healthy Parks Healthy People taskforce, which aims to

  1. Provide guidance to the WCPA, IUCN and others, on the relationships between human health, community well-being, economic prosperity and protected areas.
  2. Strengthen the ability of the global protected area network to establish collaborative relationships with other park agencies and managers, particularly urban parks 
  3. Establish alliances with government and non-government sectors to progress research and development of the links between parks, society and economies and to demonstrate these benefits.
  4. Advocate the Healthy Parks, Healthy People concept beyond WCPA/IUCN networks to create broader alliances between sectors to support the management of parks and protected areas for the benefit of society.

From 11-16 April 2010, the inaugural Healthy Parks Health People Congress will be held in Melbourne, Australia. The aim of the Congress is to seek global adoption of the Healthy Parks Healthy People philosophy to protect the earth’s two most important assets – nature and people.

Work area: 
Protected Areas
Protected Areas
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