The Secret to Good Health May Be a Walk in the Park


In Minneapolis-St. Paul, the nation’s healthiest urban region, almost everyone lives within a 10-minute walk of a good public park. Shouldn’t we all?

Even though I was heading to a highly coveted job at The New York Times in 1965, I was heartbroken to leave Minneapolis, where I had begun my journalistic career two years earlier.

Minneapolis was then, and still is, a slice of heaven for anyone who enjoys the great outdoors. According to an ambitious project of the Trust for Public Land, Minneapolis leads the nation’s metropolitan areas in providing the best overall access for the most people to well-equipped and serviced public parks and recreation. Its neighbor, St. Paul, is a close second.

Not surprising, then, is the fact that Minneapolis-St. Paul is also ranked the healthiest urban region in the country. And no, their residents are not preserved by the cold! If anything, they are out there enjoying it — ice skating, cross-country skiing, sledding, cycling, running, walking, you name it.

An analysis by the trust revealed that 96 percent of Minneapolitans and 98 percent of St. Paulites live within a 10-minute walk of a park, compared with 70 percent of residents in the 100 largest cities over all. New York City, with 99 percent of residents enjoying easy access to a park, playground, trail or other open area, ranks ninth overall in terms of public outdoor access when park size and other factors are considered.Despite its generally clement weather, Charlotte, N.C., with an average temperature of 60 degrees, 218 sunny days and only four inches of snow and 41 inches of rain a year, has the poorest overall access to public lands among the 100 major metropolitan areas studied. The analysis covered residents in 14,000 communities the Census Bureau designates as “urban areas,” which are where approximately 85 percent of Americans now live.

Last year, in partnership with the National Recreation and Parks Association and Urban Land Institute, the trust started a noble initiative that could bring Minneapolis-type benefits to every resident in the country: access to “a high-quality park within a 10-minute, or half-mile, walk,” Adrian Benepe, senior vice president for the trust and former New York City parks commissioner, told me.

Thus far, more than 220 mayors, including those serving most of America’s largest cities, have signed on to support the project, which has the potential to do as much or more for the nation’s physical and mental health than anything Congress might pass.

“Parks are key to good, healthy cities,” Mr. Benepe said. “The connection between parks and health is well established.” A 10-minute walk can enhance physical fitness, reduce the risk of chronic disease and improve brain function, like learning and memory. The 10 minutes it takes to walk back home, not to mention the activity done in between, are a bonus.

“Parks are the key to good public health and to the environmental health of cities,” Mr. Benepe said. Hanaa A. Hamdi, the trust’s public health director, says research has shown that community green spaces can reduce violent crime; counter stress and social isolation, especially for older adults; improve concentration for children with attention deficit disorder; enhance relaxation; and promote self-esteem and resilience.