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The economic value of parks for human health

Topics: Conserving Nature,Human Wellbeing | Comments

The economic value of parks for human health

In modern economic times, it seems that everything requires a financial value in order to prove its importance. Parks are no different, with their perceived value vitally linked to cities choosing to maintain open spaces in cities and nations choosing to conserve larger state and national parks.

Traditionally, conservation has been seen as more of a discretionary spend than as a necessary investment that influences our economic prosperity. It has proven difficult to value and methodologies have varied widely across cities, states and nations. Yet the wider economic benefit of parks encompasses assets that contribute to our present and future quality of life, health and prosperity[1]. The value generated by these assets has been measured and tracked in numerous ways.

1. The value of ecosystem services such as rich soil, clean water, climate regulation, reduction in greenhouse gases and pollination

Parks protect and conserve biodiversity. They play a vital role in keeping our air and water clean, counteracting the damaging effects of pollution. Parks contain large areas of woodland which remove the most abundant greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it for generations.

American Forests has conducted 27 Urban Ecosystem Analyses in US metropolitan areas to capture the value of services that trees provide in cities. Using summary mathematical models annual values of urban forest services are estimated. For example, the Puget Sound basin study (American Forests, 1998) claimed that tree cover in the county’s urban growth boundary area had reduced stormwater storage costs by $910 million, and generated annual air quality savings of $19.5 million[2].

This has relevance for developing nations also. The WWF compiled a report on Africa’s oldest national park, Virunga, as it is under threat from mining. Potential future indirect use of the park through the provision of ecosystem services can generate US$63.8 million. The main contributors to this value are carbon sequestration at US$55 million, water supply at US$1 million, and savings from erosion control at US$7.8 million.

Parkland acts as ‘green lungs’, additionally vital as there is an established link between particulate air pollution and poor health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) outdoor air pollution in both cities and rural areas was estimated to cause 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide in 2012. By reducing air pollution levels, countries can reduce the burden of disease from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and both chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma[3].

Water access is also critical to human and environmental health. In Australia, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) was commissioned by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to assess the environmental benefits of returning 2800 GL/year of water to the basin, and place a monetary value on those benefits where possible. A healthy river environment in the Murray-Darling basin provides a set of services and human benefits that have been valued for the first time. Overall, these benefits were valued by CSIRO at between $3 billion and $8 billion in 2010 dollars, although the value is undoubtedly significantly higher as not all environmental benefits could be given a monetary value[4].

2. Direct economic returns from tourism

This is possibly the easiest value to quantify as it generates a measurable return for community businesses and nations.

A recent report of tourism to protected areas in Australia shows that, even though entry to most national parks is free or a modest charge, there is considerable economic activity due to spending in the region of the national parks by people who visit the parks[5].

In the current situation, Virunga’s value is approximately US$48.9 million per year. In a stable situation characterised by the absence of conflict, secure access to the park, and sufficient resources to protect the ecosystem, the park could increase in value to more than US$1.1 billion per year.

3. Socio-economic benefits attached to recreation

As eloquently expressed in a recent Parks Forum Report “Parks are places of adventure and challenge, exercise, peace and quiet, recreation, gathering and relaxation. In them, we find a sense of enjoyment, strong community spirit and wonder in nature. Parks offer a range of recreation activities to bring families and friends together in appealing places.” [6]

City based parks are particularly important to recreation. Research in Liverpool in the UK, for example, found parks were Liverpool’s most used leisure and cultural resource, used by 90% of the population every year. 67% used parks and green spaces once a month or more[7].

4. Revenue and property value increases in cities

A local public asset can have an economic ripple effect on nearby properties and commerce. The concept of hedonic pricing acknowledges that both property values and people’s spending behaviours can be affected by the presence of parks and green spaces.

More than 100 years ago, Frederick Law Olmsted conducted a study of how parks help property values. From 1856 to 1873 he tracked the value of property immediately adjacent to Central Park, in order to justify the $13 million spent on its creation. He found that over the 17-year period there was a $209 million increase in the value of the property impacted by the park.

More recently, numerous US studies have shown that appraised property values of homes that are adjacent to parks and open spaces are typically about 8 percent to 20 percent more than comparable properties elsewhere. These values are capitalised when property taxes are assessed or when taxes are paid on a property sale[8].

5. Impact on people’s physical and mental health, as well as cultural health.

This final asset is possibly the most valuable – but also the most difficult to quantify, particularly where it relates to preventative health.

Parks provide spaces for people to be active and maintain their physical health. Public health researchers like Ariane Bedimo-Rung and Billie Giles-Corti have found that living close to urban green spaces like parks and trails can increase urban residents’ levels of physical activity and reduce the likelihood of being overweight or obese[9].

Unfortunately, the WHO reports that deaths from Non Communicable Diseases increasing worldwide. Cardiovascular diseases are the number one cause of death globally. Over 80% of cardiovascular disease deaths take place in low- and middle-income countries and occur almost equally in men and women.

Most cardiovascular diseases can be prevented by addressing risk factors, such as: tobacco use, unhealthy diet and obesity, physical inactivity, high blood pressure, diabetes and raised lipids[10].

An important recent advance in thinking on international development is the idea that population health has a significant effect on economic performance. Although the effects of individuals’ health on their productivity and earnings are observable and widely acknowledged, the consequences of population health for economic performance at a macro-level are more difficult to discern and have been, until recently, rather neglected.

Yet better health does not have to wait for an improved economy; measures to reduce the burden of disease, to give children healthy childhoods, to increase life expectancy will in themselves contribute to creating healthier economies[11].  It can be argued parks have a critical role to play here.


Parks have wide value to humanity and quantifying that value economically is important to ensuring their maintenance. The link between parks and human health is being built up across many research areas and nations, with an economic value also attributable to that health.

[1] Value of Parks, Parks Forum (year)

[2] PUBLIC VALUE OF NATURE: ECONOMICS OF URBAN TREES, PARKS AND OPEN SPACE. Kathleen L. Wolf University of Washington, College of Forest Resources (





technical report

[6] The Value of Parks document, Parks Forum, 2008

[7] The value of parks and green spaces.

[8] The impact of parks on property values: A review of the empirical evidence


[10] WHO

[11] The Consequences of Population Health for Economic Performance.  Marcella Alsan, David Bloom, David Canning, and Dean Jamison. October 2006


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