Increasingly people are living in urban areas. As cities grow, land is prized at a premium and with it come challenges to develop sustainable infrastructure. Parks and green spaces are an often-deferred element in this, as the health and economic benefits of parks are largely under-rated and not well-understood and evidence is mostly local and specific. In times of increasing obesity, cardiovascular disease, and mental health disorders, we need to fully understand the benefits of parks so that we optimise the preventative and remedial impacts they have on people’s health and wellbeing.
Like many western nations, parks are freely available in most neighbourhoods in Australia thanks to the foresight of key decision makers which has resulted in quality open space. Without this foresight, our cities might look quite different. For example, without Tom Uren’s influence in Sydney, the restoration and re-use of derelict inner city areas such as the Glebe Estate and Woolloomooloo, the reclamation of Duck Creek and the creation of the Chipping Norton Lakes Scheme would not have occurred. Parks offer numerous psychological, physical, social, economic, and environmental benefits to residents of all ages [1
] and there is growing international research on park use and its associated health and wellbeing benefits. A Danish survey found a correlation between proximal green spaces (parks) and lower levels of obesity and stress [5
]. Another Chicago based survey showed “parks spaces are found to directly mitigate stress by fostering social support” [6
] (p. 1201).
There is also growing literature identifying links between availability of neighbourhood parks and enhanced physical activity [7
] and obesity-related health indicators [11
], and also relationships with perceived general health [13
], mental health [14
], morbidity [17
], and mortality [18
]. Furthermore, a study that included pooled data from 14 cities in ten high and low-middle income countries including the U.S., Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hong Kong, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico found the number of parks located within a 0.5-km buffer from home was positively associated with physical activity [10
]. Despite this growing evidence, as Nielsen and Hansen [5
] note, further research is needed, especially Australian research, if the health sector is “to fully exploit the beneficial effects of access to green areas” and park providers are to continue to provide adequate parks.
Additionally, only a limited attempt has been made to provide a complementary economic assessment of parks. The economic value of parks in Australia is the value (expressed in monetary terms, i.e., in dollars) derived by Australians from the broad range of benefits generated by parks. The benefits of parks include health benefits that accrue to all Australians indirectly through the environmental benefits of parks such as the contribution to climate stability and water quality, but there are also important preventative and remedial direct health benefits gained by individuals who visit parks. Furthermore, even people who do not visit parks may still derive value from the option of using parks in the future or from the pleasure of the parks simply existing. This relative lack of evidence on the economic value of benefits to health and wellbeing is echoed in a (non-systematic) review of Australian and New Zealand evidence presented by Parks Forum, a peak body for parks organisations in Australia and New Zealand [20
]. Examples of the results of valuation studies to date include over $
7000 per hectare water purification benefit produced by permanent wetlands and over $
100 million per annum water supply benefit to the Cotter catchment of Australian Capital Territory [21
], a 20% premium on real estate values from location near a city park [22
], and a contribution to local tourism and subsidisation of costs of staging community events of $
130 million per annum for the Adelaide Parklands and over $
10 million per annum across the Greater Sydney Region [23
]. While this review demonstrates the size and scope of the potential total economic value of parks and open space in Australia, it also demonstrates the dearth of evidence on the value of health and wellbeing benefits from individual interactions. In light of this, the aim of this exploratory study was to estimate the perceived health and wellbeing benefits attained from visiting parks and the economic value assigned to parks by park users in Victoria, Australia.
2. Materials and Methods
The research employed a mixed methods approach (park intercept survey and qualitative interviews) to collect primary data from a selection of park users. Data were collected between July 2015 and November 2015 on different days of the week and at various times of the day. Two researchers randomly approached English speaking adult park users inviting them to complete a short (10 min) written survey, resulting in 140 park user responses (80% response rate): 100 from two metropolitan Melbourne parks and 40 from a park on the urban fringe of Melbourne, Victoria.
2.1. Brief Description of the Three Parks
Three parks were selected for inclusion in this study, as they represented a range of urban and peri-urban exemplars.
Park 1 is 55 hectares and consists of: natural bushland (less maintained than Park 2 and the park on the urban fringe), a playground (including old trams), BBQ facilities, public toilets, a homestead, a golf course, football ovals, and tennis courts, and has a main road as its entry point, a car park with a hard surface, and gravel paths throughout. This park is located in the eastern suburbs, approx. 19 km from Melbourne Central Business District (CBD).
Park 2 is 127 hectares and consists of: manicured lawns and natural bushland, a large lake, a café, three separate playgrounds, public toilets, BBQ facilities (rotunda), sporting facilities on site, asphalt paths (suitable for walkers and cyclists), and parking on site at the park (not asphalt). This park is located in the south-eastern suburbs, approx. 32 km from Melbourne CBD.
Park 3 is on the urban fringe of Melbourne and is 7.5 hectares and consists of: manicured lawns and natural areas (the most maintained), one playground, lake, BBQ facilities (rotunda), public toilets, a combination of asphalt and gravel paths, and parking on street (not as part of park). This park is located approx. 60 km from Melbourne CBD.
The survey included measures of:
the level and extent of the user’s engagement with the park;
the attitudes and perceptions of park users about use and enjoyment of parks and the link to improved health outcomes;
the importance of parks to users;
the park user’s mental health (measured with the Perceived Stress Scale [25
]) and wellbeing (measured with the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale [26
the economic value assigned by park users to parks.
A contingent valuation method was used to estimate the monetary value park users attach to the health benefits derived from parks. The survey used a dichotomous choice with follow up, in which participants were asked to imagine a hypothetical scenario where an annual levy is collected into a funding pool to maintain and provide access to parks in Victoria. At the same time, participants were reminded of the vital Fire Services Property Levy that is currently collected. Participants then made an economic choice whether they were willing to pay (WTP) (yes or no) with follow-up elicitation questions. A follow-up question to a response of “no” aimed to understand whether individuals were uninterested in the provision of parks or not (i.e., true zero values or protest responses). Another follow-up question to a response of “yes” invited individuals to decide on the maximum dollar amount they would be willing to pay for the provision and access to parks in Victoria. There were ten WTP interval bids ($0 to $100) to choose from, including an “other amount” which was an open-ended bid.
Tobit regression [27
] was used to examine the association between the WTP values and the participants’ demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. The Tobit model assumes that the dependent variable has a number of its values clustered at a limiting value, usually zero [28
]. The advantage of Tobit regression is that it is able to estimate the relationship between the explanatory variable and some dependent variables (in this case WTP) to estimate the probability of a dependent variable being at or above a limit of $
0. The explanatory variables are selected based on demographic factors found in the literature to influence WTP. Demographic factors, which could predict how WTP varies, were included in the model, such as age, gender, employment, and income [29
]. We expected participants who frequented parks regularly, had children, and valued the provision of parks as highly important would exhibit higher WTP values than other respondents. Variables related to these attributes were also included in the Tobit model. Analysis was conducted in STATA/SE 14.0 (StataCorp LLC, College Station, TX, USA).
Following completion of the survey, participants were invited to participate in a follow-up semi-structured one-on-one qualitative interview that lasted approximately 10–15 min and allowed them to expand on their responses to some of the survey questions. Participants were asked to describe, for example, how they felt about “access” to parks and the “benefits” parks may/may not provide them. The interviews were recorded and saved in accordance with ethical requirements and were transcribed verbatim. The interview data were thematically analysed, as informed by grounded theory [31
]. The research team initially worked independently to code the data and establish themes and then came together to confirm and finalise the major themes and key findings, thus enhancing the rigor of the data analysis process [32
All participants gave their informed consent for inclusion before they participated in the study. The study was conducted in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki, and the protocol was approved by the Deakin University Human Ethics Advisory Group approved the study (HEAG-H 69_2015).
This exploratory study represents an attempt to research the nature and extent to which parks can be publicly acknowledged as having very real and justifiable claims to being essential to health and wellbeing and that these claims can be justified in economic terms. A vital and central feature of the study is that it focused on people who use parks to gain some assessable insight into their views on the need for, and economic value they place on, parks. Our findings suggest that park users derive a range of physical, mental/spiritual, and social health benefits. Park use was predominantly associated with physical health benefits, followed by social benefits and mental health benefits. Participants were found to “highly value” parks to improve mood and feelings of wellness.
In terms of the participants’ willingness to pay for the maintenance of and access to parks, our findings suggested that the overall mean (SD) annual amount park users were willing to pay was $45.4 (AUD) (38.4). Predominantly, participants considered the provision of parks to be “most important” or “just as important” as other local services and were willing to pay higher amounts to keep parks.
Some caution needs to be taken when interpreting our findings, as they are from a relatively small sample of parks users and therefore the results could be somewhat biased towards those who visit parks. Our results are also limited by the fact that data was only collected from three parks which offered a diverse range of facilities and attributes (i.e., sporting facilities and playgrounds), so it is possible that they provided more opportunities for physical activity than parks in other neighbourhoods. In addition, our sample did not include participants from different cultural groups or people from various socio-economic statuses, so our results are not representative of the general population. Furthermore, given the lack of published Australian norms and the meaning of differences in the mental health score, the magnitude of the scale scores on PSS4 and SWEMWBS should be interpreted with caution. We also acknowledge that due to only 17 participants being interviewed, we are not able extrapolate our qualitative findings to the general population.
However, overall our exploratory study findings suggest that park users are willing to pay for parks, as they highly value them as places for exercising, socialising, and relaxing. Importantly, most people would miss parks if they did not exist. The findings aim to provide park managers, public health advocates, and urban policy makers with evidence about the perceived health and wellbeing benefits of park usage and the economic value of parks.