- Three trends are occurring today in the United States which inspired this research. First, America is growing increasingly urbanized. Today, more Americans are living in cities than in rural environments, and this pattern is predicted to continue for the foreseeable future. Urban living has benefits, but there are also challenges for city residents including pollution, traffic, and crime. As social scientists, we need to improve our understanding of urban dwellers' relationship with their natural environment just as biophysical scientists are focusing more and more on the impacts of urban development on the natural world. Second, Americans are spending less time recreating outdoors. There has been a documented decline of participation in nature-based recreation, likely being replaced by an increase in use of electronic media during people's leisure time. Less contact with nature has consequences for people, perhaps especially for city dwellers who spend the majority of their time surrounded by the built environment of concrete and asphalt. It is likely that reliance on electronic entertainment has played a substantial role in decreasing amounts of physical activity. Lastly, Americans are becoming more sedentary. Today, the number of Americans who report getting no physical activity is about equal to the number who report getting regular physical exercise during their free time. Rising rates of obesity for adults and children in the U.S. have raised considerable concerns among medical and public policy professionals.
The purpose of this research was to examine how small-scale urban nature parks are affecting city residents in Portland, OR. I looked at three elements of Portland residents' relationship with urban nature parks. First, I looked at whether there was an association between individual physical and psychological health and park use. Prior research has revealed that people who spend time recreating outdoors tend to be more physically active than people who do not. These observed higher levels of physical activity are associated with improved physical health. Time in nature settings has also demonstrated a positive effect on psychological well-being, such as reduced anxiety and improved ability to concentrate. Second, I examined whether having a nature park in their community had an effect on Portland residents' sense of neighborhood health. Previous research suggests that having natural areas in urbanized areas directly contributes to city residents' sense of a stronger, healthier community. Green space in cities has been associated with not only higher levels of reported satisfaction with the neighborhood, but also with higher property values, and with higher levels of retail spending. Third, I employed a social psychological model of attitude formation to evaluate Portland residents' attitudes about their nature parks. Attitudes are particularly important for natural resource managers to understand and account for in policy decisions since management of natural resources often engages the public's sense of personal freedoms and concerns over government regulations. Furthermore, because people in cities are so closely in contact with urban green space on a regular basis, inclusive and responsive policy requires that managers take account of public attitudes. I collected the data relating to these three elements of the relationship between urban residents and their nature parks in Portland because it is the largest city in Oregon.
I obtained the data through a general population survey, randomly distributed to residents in the Portland metropolitan area during the fall of 2010. I conducted customary social science statistical analysis, including linear regression, to assess the relationship between Portland nature parks and personal and community health. To evaluate my sample's attitudes, I used the tripartite model of attitude formation originally developed in social psychology research. Because I was working with latent factors of attitude formation, I used structural equation modeling to assess the relationship of the observed variables to their latent factors, and the relationship among the latent factors.
My results largely agree with those of other researchers, though I approached the question of physical health and nature recreation slightly differently. For my work on physical health, rather than ask about physical activity and infer health outcomes, I asked directly about physical health. I tested two hypotheses. One hypothesis was that there would be a positive association between self-reported physical health and park use, and the other tested for a positive association between park use and psychological health. My hypothesis for the physical health-parks relationship was partially supported. I tested two physical health variables, and found that one, which described overall health, did reveal a statistically significant relationship to park use. The other, relating to role limitations due to physical health problems, did not have a significant relationship to park use. My second hypothesis asserted that there would be a positive relationship between psychological health and park user status. This hypothesis was not supported, but I did find indications of an association between psychological health and park use.
The second element of the relationship between city residents and urban nature parks related to neighborhood health. My results from this analysis were consistent with prior research findings which tend to support a positive association. I tested whether parks close by respondents homes (a fifteen to twenty minute walk), and parks farther away (no more than a ten minute drive away from home) were positively associated with self-reported neighborhood health. I found that both levels of proximity were positively associated with perceptions of neighborhood health. Because prior research suggests that one of the ways that neighborhood green spaces promote stronger communities is through the social interactions that occur in parks among neighbors, I also tested whether park-related social interaction was positively associated with community health ratings. In testing for a mediating effect of social interaction on the relationship between parks and neighborhood health, I found that park-related social interaction had a partial mediating effect on neighborhood health ratings for both parks within walking distance and within driving distance. In testing for moderation, I found that the moderation effect of social interaction was present only for parks within walking distance.
The third and final element of the relationship between urban nature parks and city dwellers was attitudes about urban nature parks. I employed a model of attitude formation originally proposed in the social psychology literature. The tripartite model argues that an attitude is formed through three precursors: the cognitive, the affective, and the behavioral components. I also included an additional variable for social networks which I proposed would act as a moderating variable on the relationship between the other components and park attitude. My results for the entire, combined sample of both park users and nonusers indicated that both the cognitive factor and the affective factor have a significant association with attitude formation, while the behavioral component did not. The model for the combined sample also showed that social networks had a statistically significant, inverse relationship with attitudes. I conducted a test for attitude differences between groups (users and nonusers), and found a statistically significant difference. I also tested for a moderating effect of social networks on the other attitude formation components, but that relationship was not supported. Finally, I conducted comparisons between the two groups to assess any differences in the attitude components between users and nonusers. Side-by-side comparisons revealed that both users' and nonusers' attitudes were significantly influenced by the affective component. Perceived outcomes of park use was not predictive of attitude for either group. The values component (on an anthropocentric-biocentric scale) was significant for users, but not nonusers. Nonusers attitudes were also significantly impacted by the behavioral component (i.e., behaviors related to parks), and by social networks. Social networks were not predictive of users' park attitudes.
The research I have presented herein provides support for the hypotheses that time spent in natural settings is associated with better physical and psychological health and that community green spaces contribute to satisfaction with one's neighborhood. I also found that attitudes about parks differed between users and nonusers, yet both groups valued them as benefits in the urban environment. Since my sample size was insufficient to make generalizable statements about Portland's population, my results are suggestive, but are consistent with prior research. My research results can help urban natural resource managers and city decision-makers make more inclusive decisions by incorporating an understanding of city residents' relationships to urban nature parks. The results of my research on personal and community health support the position that urban green space fulfills an important function by providing valuable public health benefits, and promoting healthier, more "livable" communities. My results indicate that, for my sample, social interaction at parks was positively related to neighborhood health. Such a positive association suggests that parks could be leveraged to build community cohesion which ultimately leads to benefits like increased sense of safety and happier residents. My results pertaining to park attitudes can help managers develop more targeted public outreach campaigns. For instance, I found that for park nonusers, social networks were a statistically significant predictor of park attitudes. This result implies that park staff and managers could benefit by identifying community organizations and business associations that might be conduits to reach nonusers. Through such information pathways, park managers could disseminate information about urban nature parks that could attract current nonusers.
Urban nature parks are not the sole answer to building healthier communities and people. They cannot alone reverse social ills that many urban neighborhoods contend with routinely. However, the scientific data do support the idea that urban natural spaces like nature parks are positively associated with personal and community health. With careful participatory planning that includes a substantial public input component, urban natural resource managers could develop urban nature parks as part of a city's green infrastructure that not only provides valuable ecosystem services like cleaner water and reduced energy consumption, but also provides for nature-based recreation experiences that promote healthier, happier city residents.