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Know the West

Go play outside


An article in the most recent edition of New Scientist about a fascinating study conducted at the University of Washington offers yet more evidence that investing in community green space can pay off in significant public benefits.

The University of Washington study tracked the Body Mass Index of 3,831 children over two years, New Scientist reported. Janice Bell's team found that kids living near green spaces had lower BMI's and gained weight more slowly during the study, the magazine reported, and these benefits were shared across economic levels:

Image courtesy Flickr user Serge Melki.

"Importantly, the effect was independent of the socio-economic status of the children's families, which might have had an impact on their diet, and the housing density, which might indicate how much outdoor space was available for playing in - be it a leafy park or a concrete play area or car park. Bell's team concludes that children are more likely to play physically and exercise if their surroundings include plenty of green space."

There's an important subtext here: making sure kids have access to green space matters. It's a public health issue, not just an environmental one. If, as I've described before, access to parks in the West's cities can be improved, kids might have opportunities to avoid obesity. It's thrilling that people like Oprah Winfrey are trying to get more Americans to our National Parks, but the University of Washington's study says something else: Kids need green space to be part of their every day lives (really, we all do).

The article does an excellent job of contextualizing the University of Washington study alongside other research into the physiological impact of nature and green space, as well as more anecdotal reflections on the topic. Another study, from the British journal The Lancet, illustrated how differences in mortality rates between poor and wealthy individuals shrank in places with more green space. Other research presented in the New Scientist piece describe how nature may contribute to relaxation and healing.

The study should encourage folks like Alan Hipólito, whose grassroots organization, Verde, has detailed how one of Portland's most impoverished neighborhoods also happens to be one of the city's least green areas.

It's funny that it takes medical studies, but we should be happy this research is being done. Policymakers need to see clear evidence that creating incentives for integrating green space with community planning is worth the investment. That the benefits of greening are evident across the board might make the decision easier for politicians either wary of gentrification or paranoid about accusations about government meddling.

 Bill Lascher is a Portland, Oregon-based freelancer. He focuses on the environment's intersection with science, business, culture and policy. 

He got the name for his Web site, Lascher at Large, from the legal column his father penned for 20 years before his death. Lascher is currently working on a project with his grandmother to tell the story of her cousin, Melville Jacoby, a foreign correspondent who died in the early days of World War II.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.