Parks are lungs of the city—they bring life to urban space, allowing people opportunities for play, physical activity, recreation, social interactions, and personal and spiritual growth [1
]. The evidence connecting urban nature and health is promising: city parks have been shown to be associated with increased physical activity [4
], improved physical and mental health [6
], lower body mass index (BMI) [11
], reduced stress and anxiety [12
], decreased morbidity [13
], and even increased longevity [14
]. Moreover, urban green space protects people from the detrimental effects of stress on their health [15
] by decreasing heart rate, muscle tension, skin conductance, blood pressure, and inflammatory markers [17
]. This buffering effect of nature on people’s health seems to be even more beneficial for underprivileged groups [18
]. It is becoming increasingly clear that urban green space is an essential component of a sustainable city because it fuels psychological (e.g., supporting one’s own self-perception, sense of purpose, and stress reduction), social (e.g., strengthening relationships with others), and physical (e.g., allowing for physical activity beneficial for one’s physical and mental health) needs of its residents and it creates opportunities for a vast range of immersive and meaningful experiences [20
Besides the health benefits that parks have to offer, access to green, clean, and safe parks is also a matter of social justice and equity [22
]. According to previous research, as compared to White neighborhoods, minority (predominantly Black and Hispanic) neighborhoods were significantly less likely to have access to recreational facilities, and low-income neighborhoods were 4.5 times more likely to lack access to parks than high-income areas [23
]. Moreover, research has shown that underrepresented groups such as African Americans, Hispanics, and foreign-born residents report more unique barriers to park use. These barriers include not feeling welcome and appreciated, cultural and language restrictions, inconvenient program schedules and pricing concerns, poorly maintained facilities, and safety concerns [24
]. In the same vein, previous studies have found that limited spatial access to parks, inadequate or poorly maintained facilities, lack of bilingual staff, and perceived safety hazards were some of the biggest concerns regarding park use voiced by racial and ethnic minority groups [25
]. Moreover, a recent study explored whether the quality of urban parks—measured through The Trust for Public Land’s Park Score—differs depending on a city’s median income and ethnic composition [28
]. The researchers have found that affluent, majority-White cities have higher quality parks than those inhabited predominantly by low-income ethnic minority groups [28
]. The study also found that cities with more residents representing a Latino group have higher neighborhood-level socioeconomic inequities in walking access to parks than cities with lower percentages of a Latino population [28
]. Taken together, it is crucial to hear and integrate community voices, as ethnically and racially diverse as possible, into research and parks planning [18
]. Yet, most research to date has focused on the influence of people’s mere exposure to parks rather than on the nuanced, individual meaning that they themselves assign to urban green space. Moreover, beside the salutogenic effects of parks on health [7
], social interactions [3
], and physical activity [4
], the psychological mechanisms underlying these effects are not well understood.
Among plausible mediating pathways between city parks and individuals’ health and wellbeing is the sense of connection that people develop and negotiate with urban green space. Existing research examining psychosocial dimensions of parks’ usage has found that urban green space strengthens city residents’ relationship with other people, their community, and self [1
], and improves their psychological wellbeing, including sense of purpose and connection to their community [2
]. In the same vein, in their mixed-method study on psychosocial-spiritual benefits of engagement with New York City (NYC) parklands, Svendsen et al. [20
] found that a variety of activities undertaken in urban green areas reflects a personal need to connect with nature and “a larger reality”, as well as with others and self. Utilizing interviews, field observation, and photo documentation, the study paints a picture of parkland as a space that extends beyond exercise and recreation and provides opportunities for human connection, self-reflection, and creative expression. Based on the results of their study, Svendsen et al. [20
] suggested that parks are co-created and co-designed by nature and enable people “to feel part of the world around them, and perhaps to connect to a space inside them”.
Conceptualizing parks as a carousel of dynamic human emotions, relationships, and connection has important implications to urban planning, specifically human-centered design. This innovative, nonlinear, and multidisciplinary design strategy has recently gained popularity in the social and public sectors and has been used to address complex problems [34
] including challenges facing public health [35
]. According to the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (d.school) [37
], human centered-design teams follow a series of steps in the process of designing a particular solution, through: (1) Empathizing with the “customer”, (2) Defining (the problem), and (3) Ideating, (4) Prototyping, and (5) Testing possible solutions. The Empathize
stage sets out to understand people, their way of doing things and the underlying motivation behind their actions, their physical and emotional needs, how they perceive the world around them, and what they find meaningful. The Define
stage helps bring clarity and focus to the design process by articulating the design challenge accurately. The Ideate
stage concentrates on idea generation and involves brainstorming concepts and outcomes that constitute the foundation for building prototypes and consequently innovative solutions to the design challenge. The Prototype
stage consists of the iterative generation of potential solutions to the problem at hand and involves building “low-resolution, cheap and quick representations” of ideated solutions that can elicit useful feedback (in later stages of the design process the prototypes may become more refined). The Test
stage focuses on soliciting feedback about the prototypes, gaining empathy for a target audience in the context of the designed solution, and refining design solutions further. As these design stages exemplify, at the core of the human-centered design methodology is a fundamental belief that in order to design innovative and effective solutions, it is essential to understand people’s needs, values, perceptions, and behaviors and to engage with them at every level of the design process [34
]. Designing human-friendly parks is not an exception.
In this context, the current research examined individuals’ perceptions and personal meanings of parks as a way to hear the voices of communities and to provide ideas for an implementation of their identified personal meanings into the design of parks. The study built on previous research that explored psychosocial dimensions of urban green spaces [15
], but it is distinct in the following ways. First, the previous studies integrated a variety of methods simultaneously (e.g., observations, photography, interviews) in exploring psycho-socio-spiritual aspects of park use—in contrast, the current study exclusively focused on in-depth analysis of self-reports as a way to unravel the unique psychology of park use. As such, the nature of the research was more psychological and intrinsic in scope as opposed to focused on social dynamics or spiritual meanings of a physical space alone. Concentrating exclusively on the psychology behind park use, the researchers explored individuals’ perceptions of urban parks in order to identify psychological mechanisms by which parks exert their effects on health. Specifically, personal meaning of and relationship with parks were examined. Second, the study was contextualized within and inspired by the principles of human-centered design, and the outcomes and implications of the study were explored in the context of a human-centered design framework. Third, it utilized in-person interviews with culturally diverse New Yorkers representing predominantly underprivileged communities, as opposed to with just one sociocultural or particular user group [32
]. Fourth, in contrast to a structured set of questionnaires [32
] or rapid interviews [20
], the study deployed open-ended questions that exclusively focused on participants’ personal reflections on city parks and that allowed the researcher to develop a rapport with research participants. The opportunity to develop trust with culturally diverse individuals afforded by conducting in depth qualitative interviews is often cited as an essential ingredient for ethical, informative, and culturally sound research [38
]. Given that trust creates a safe space for people to open up and reveal their genuine thoughts and feelings, qualitative interviews help to develop implementation strategies that reflect people’s deeply seeded needs, values, and beliefs [38
]. Finally, this qualitative research is a sub-study of a larger research project—the PARCS (Physical Activity and Redesigned Community Spaces) Study. The PARCS study leverages a natural experiment opportunity to examine the impact of the Community Parks Initiative (CPI)—a citywide redesign and renovation effort in New York City—on physical activity, park usage, psychosocial and mental health, and community wellbeing [39
In the current qualitative PARCS sub-study, twenty PARCS study participants were asked the following questions: (1) What does green urban space mean to you? (2) What comes to mind when you think of parks and green urban areas in your neighborhood? (3) What does participation in the PARCS Study mean to you?
Following the review of the themes identified from the interviews, the results are discussed in the context of urban planning and human-centered design. We argue that a human-centered framework could inform future research and interventions aimed at using parks as a vehicle to improve health.
The results of this exploratory study illustrate the idea that urban parks are not only the lungs of the city, providing people with opportunities for physical activity and improving their health and wellbeing, parks are also the heart and soul of the city, enabling people to develop a genuine and emotional connection to the world around them and to themselves. Indeed, consistent with previous research [20
], the current study found that using green urban space is, in part, motivated by humans’ deep desire to connect with their loved ones, but also with a larger community around them, with nature, and with their inner selves. This finding is aligned with decades of psychological research that has identified connection as one of the most fundamental human needs that allows people to flourish and feel seen, heard, and valued for who they are [21
]. Our brains are hardwired to connect with one another and with the broader world around us [52
]. These connections with loved ones, friends, and communities are just as important to our survival and flourishing as the basic needs of food, safety, and shelter [49
]. In fact, in his hierarchy of needs, Maslow places social connection just after basic physiological and safety needs [50
] and identifies self-actualization—a deep connection with self, expressed in our quest for self-knowledge, meaning of life, or beauty—as one of the basic human needs as well.
Because having a sense of connection with others, our communities, and our inner selves improves our mental and physical health [43
], it is essential to promote and design spaces that facilitate all forms of connection to boost the health of our communities. According to previous research, various forms of connectedness increase our capacity to tackle and overcome adversity and to improve our health and well-being more generally [45
]. In fact, because of their beneficial effect on health and wellbeing, connectedness and sense of belonging to different groups have recently been described as “social cures” [44
]. Researchers have started exploring ways to make connectedness policy relevant to improve health outcomes for specific populations and society in general. They explore the question of how policy can facilitate the development of sustainable and socially engaging communities to promote physical and mental health [43
]. This understanding can be applied to urban green space as well. By creating opportunities for connectedness and designing policies that promote all forms of connection discussed in this paper, we can collectively benefit the health of our communities, especially disadvantaged individuals whose health is often jeopardized.
Promoting all forms of connection through green urban space is more important than ever given current social, cultural, and demographic trends emerging across large metropolitan areas in the United States (US). For instance, because more than 50 percent of American adults are single, and 31 million—around one out of every seven adults—live alone [54
], connecting with others and our own needs seems to be important to our wellbeing and sense of connectedness. Moreover, a typical American family size has become smaller over the years [55
], the rate of divorce has been increasing [55
], and people are spending more time in the virtual world, disconnected from their loved ones in the real world [56
]. These socio-cultural trends that have emerged within the social fabric of our lives call for revisiting and examining more closely our need for connection. In addition, in a multicultural country like the US, immigration has remained a factor that enriches the social and cultural landscape of our communities, creating opportunities for connecting with others from different backgrounds. Through proximity with ethnically diverse individuals and communities, we broaden our horizons and worldviews and become more educated and culturally aware citizens. Connecting with others who are different than us has become even more critical in times where the country is more polarized than ever because of the current socio-political climate that does not promote inclusion and appreciation of diversity.
Along with previous research highlighting the importance of individuals’ social, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of park usage [1
], the current study emphasizes the human need for connection as a driving force of people’s engagement with their parks. These results are also aligned with the outcomes of the Design Thinking for Parks workshop that our group has been experimenting with to gain insights into the needs and values of the PARCS study participants and to co-create ideas for park engagement [57
]. Corroborating the results of the current study, our workshop has revealed that tools to enhance the connectivity of residents could potentially enhance their park use. Participants of the workshop described parks as an extension of home and as safe spaces that are physically and emotionally accessible to everyone where people engage in activities that foster self-improvement and personal growth. As part of the community participatory ideation process, some design prototypes that may facilitate connection to people’s family and loved ones, to communities and neighborhoods, to their inner selves, and to nature included: (1) an interactive screen/web space that would help inform individuals about events happening at their local parks—if people know about the events organized at their local parks, they may be more likely to attend them, and consequently connect with one another, with nature, and depending on the character of the event (e.g., educational, inspirational), with themselves; (2) designated park areas for vendors to do business, created for local businesses to gain community exposure and to benefit that community—this would allow urban residents to connect to their neighborhoods and communities by supporting a variety of local businesses; this initiative would also provide an opportunity for the exchange of ideas between different business and service providers and customers; (3) a digital storytelling platform with a physical screen in parks for community members to share their stories, talents, culture, etc. In addition, there could also be a small amphitheater with a central focus area, similar to a stage, that would afford urban residents storytelling opportunities. The platform can facilitate connection between like-minded individuals, expose others to a variety of artistically and aesthetically enriching performances, and allow people self-expression and self-exploration, enabling them to connect to their inner selves as well.
Although the current study revealed some important insights regarding the personal meaning that individuals assign to their parks, there are some limitations that should be acknowledged. First, our sample was focused on residents in low-income neighborhoods in NYC. Therefore, study findings may not be generalizable to all populations. Future studies can build on the insight derived from this research and measure different dimensions of connection in a quantitative manner with a larger and more diverse sample of participants. Although questions designed for the study were carefully crafted and tested to ensure cultural sensitivity and accuracy, our question set was limited, and a different set of questions could have yielded different results. We included only open-ended questions, which in qualitative research are commonly used as a basis for theory development, exploring relatively unknown research areas [58
] such as the personal meaning and perception of urban parks. This format addressed the research goals and allowed for free exploration of participants’ views. Finally, the sample consisted predominantly of women—out of twenty participants, only three were men. This disproportional rate of women to men could influence the results of the study as women may perceive connection to family and friends and their neighborhoods and communities as more important than men typically would. The importance of human connection in women’s lives can be a result of a typical socialization processes that still highlight nurturing the relationships with others as more important for women than men. Future studies should explore how men, as compared to women, perceive the notion of parks as space that facilitate interpersonal connection.