NE1962: Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Other Green Environments: Understanding Human and Community Benefits and Mechanisms

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Active

NE1962: Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Other Green Environments: Understanding Human and Community Benefits and Mechanisms

Duration: 10/01/2012 to 09/30/2017

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Statement of Issues and Justification

Research reveals that outdoor recreation and other green environments improve quality of life, promote environmental stewardship and enhance community well-being. However, there are important research and educational gaps in the understanding the extent of and means by which these outcomes occur. Similar voids exist in knowledge of the factors that motivate, constrain, and sustain outdoor recreation activity among various population groups. Furthermore, the role of outdoor recreation, parks and other green environments need to be studied in the context of the socio-ecological systems in which they are embedded. Equally as important, implications of existing research have not permeated the policy arena, community planning or professional training programs.

Quality of life is highly dependent on good health, yet Americans are less physically active today than in the past, a trend that is related to the obesity epidemic. In a 2009 literature review, Godbey found that only a quarter of adults in the United States engaged in recommended physical activity levels and 29% reported no regular physical activity during leisure time. Only half of those aged 12-21 said they regularly participated in vigorous physical activity, and 25% reported no vigorous physical activity at all. The challenge is particularly acute among US youth as one third of US children are overweight and one sixth are obese (Accessed May 14, 2012 from Obese children have 2-3 times more risk of being hospitalized. Recent scientific research suggests that the mere act of being outdoors can lead to healthier, active lifestyles for people of all ages. Being outdoors decreases the health effects of pollution from indoor spaces, reduces the chance of overeating, increases physical activity and lowers stress. Studies document that physical activity increases among families that have access to parks, trails and other green environments (e.g., Sallis & Bauman, 1998; Sallis, Hovell, & Hofstetter, 1990, Giles-Corti et al., 2005).

Intuitively, increased outdoor recreation and contact with nature improves environmental literacy. Conversely, a widespread assumption is that contact with nature, particularly among youth, is declining and, in turn causing environmental literacy to decline. While some research exists to support this supposition, the results are scarce, contradictory and mostly correlational. Nonetheless, governments are committing hundreds of millions of dollars in appropriated funds as if the assumption of a cause-effect relationship between outdoor recreation and environmental literacy was supported by empirical evidence. There are few guidelines directing the expenditure of these funds into nature-based recreational programs and infrastructure that bolster environmental literacy, particularly among youth. Early childhood experiences with nature are associated with environmental awareness, advocacy and entry of young people into natural resource careers. If contact between youth and nature is on the decline, it is important to know the consequences related to concern for the environment at a time when global climate change is impacting human systems. A rising research area is focusing attention on the interrelationships among environmental education, environmental conditions, environmental literacy and citizen science group dynamics. One aim of this emerging research effort is the development of effective climate change policies and environmentally responsible behaviors.

Beyond improved individual health and increased environmental literacy, outdoor recreation spaces contribute to community vibrancy and resilience. Natural amenities promote vibrant communities by attracting visitors, new residents and businesses, as natural amenities are correlated with population growth, augmented property values and increased economic prosperity in these communities (Crompton, 2000; Wainger & Price, 2004; Crompton, 2007). The resilience of human communities is linked to the health of ecological systems. Population growth and adverse environmental impacts can affect the qualities (i.e., natural amenities) that attracted new residents and businesses. Understanding of the role of outdoor recreation, parks and other green spaces in developing and sustaining vibrant and resilient communities is still in its nascent stages.

According to the United Nations population division, Homo sapiens became an urban species in 2008. By 2030, around 70% of humans will live in urban settings, most of which are becoming less influenced by natural features and increasingly marked by human objects and human-made climate. Little is known about the negative consequences associated with diminished contact with nature. Even less is known about the mechanisms by which positive effects occur. The purpose of this Multi-State project is to augment understanding of the extent and means by which outdoor recreation, parks and other green environments connect individuals to nature and lead to healthier people, natural resources, and communities.

Importance of the Work.

This research will lead to improved understanding of the links between parks and green spaces, outdoor recreation, health, environmental literacy and community vitality. Knowledge from this research will provide the basis for evidence-based practices and policies at national, state and local levels. Such policies will result in lower healthcare costs by providing preventative methods and infrastructure. A 2012 study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) projects that the proportion of Americans who are obese will rise from 35% to 42% by 2030, resulting in $550 billion in obesity-related health care costs. According to CDC studies, childhood obesity, also on the rise, is strongly related to adult obesity. One of CDC's recommended remedies is to improve access to parks and playgrounds. An outcome of the proposed research is decreased national health care costs related to obesity and allied illnesses. Further, promoting active and healthy lifestyles among children will improve future generations' quality of life. Studies show that children who spend time outdoors are more physically active than their indoor counterparts, but little research addresses children's outdoor play time as it relates specifically to health outcomes and environmental literacy. This project will attempt to fill the research void by examining the extent to which diminished contact with nature contributes to increases in childhood obesity and allied illnesses, and decreases in environmental literacy.

Quality of life will also be promoted from this research by enabling professionals to design outdoor recreation opportunities where green infrastructure serves to not only retain and sustain ecosystems but also provides ecological services upon which human health is dependent. Furthermore, green infrastructure promotes vibrant and resilient communities by attracting young families and tourism businesses. Third, advancing new, participatory approaches to environmental literacy will meet the long-term goal of public adoption of behaviors that will help address environmental challenges, such as climate change. Increasing environmental literacy will also increase citizens' and policy makers' ability to make responsible informed decisions about the environmental future.

Executive Order in 2002 (Exec. Order No. 13266) mandated land management agencies to promote the use of outdoor recreation areas for improved health. Since then, federal land management agencies have moved forward in a variety of ways to address health issues. For example, the National Park Service established a Health and Wellness Steering Committee to explore the role of national parks in promoting health and implement health-related initiatives (US Department of Interior, National Park Service, 2010.); the USDA Forest Service has estimated the caloric expenditures of recreation activities on Forest Service lands (Kline, Rosenberger & White, 2011). The role of outdoor recreation for a healthier US is recognized as an important study area in the most recent Outdoor Recreation Research and Education strategic plan (USDA CSREES, 2007). More generically, this project addresses a McIntire-Stennis strategic plan (NAUFRP, 2010) priority to understand human behavior and attitudes related to natural resources.

By integrating extension specialists and field educators, the project will guide the next generation of park planners and recreation practitioners via curricular changes and enhancements, trained undergraduate and graduate students, and practitioner outreach.

Technical Feasibility of the Research.

There is a cadre of qualified researchers at land-grant institutions, other public and private institutions, federal agencies, state agencies, and nongovernmental organizations contributing to research efforts related to the scope of this project. There are few technical limitations in outdoor recreation research. Advanced study designs utilizing such systems and procedures as GIS, photo elicitation, psychometric scaling, modeling, behavioral and physiological monitoring devices, cognitive concentration tests, experimental designs and qualitative and mixed methods techniques are being employed. The challenge and opportunity is coordinating across states and projects to effectively share projects, methods and results to achieve the intended outcomes and impacts. Standardization of methods, assessing reliability across populations and strong leadership will enhance success project outcomes. Coordinated research that establishes common metrics will enable replication and expand the generalizability, thereby advancing recreational research and creating synergies not yet realized.

Value of a Multi-State Approach.

A Multi-State effort, will allow (a) the assessment of many more settings, which will reveal patterns in outdoor physical activity, literacy and community resilience according to geographic region, place characteristics and demographic groupings, (b) replication in different environments to assess the robustness of results, (c) establishment of baseline data for the tracking of trends, (d) multidisciplinary research, including the fields of health, public health, nutrition and geography and (e) understanding of the extent to which outcomes generalize to broad classes of mechanisms and experiences.

A Multi-State initiative will allow assessment of many more physical activities and outdoor recreation areas at a wider geographic scope (local, state and national) than could be obtained by an investigator in one state. The utility of the research is directly proportional to the number of observations, and since much outdoor recreation activity is concentrated in the warmer months, the number of observations that can be made by any one research team is limited. To illustrate, if each participating college or university investigates three outdoor play environments for level of activity, there may be as many as 60-70 samples to assess. Also, a Multi-State effort will foster the study of more types of possible mechanisms (immune system functioning, physical activity, etc.) by which contact with nature impacts human health.

Research on the relationships between environmental education, childhood and adult experiences with nature and environmental literacy has been largely sporadic and piecemeal. There has been no coordinated effort directed at refuting or substantiating causal connections. As environmental education efforts, requirements and integration with learning standards vary between states, a Multi-State project will allow assessment of environmental literacy that can determine causal links between contact with nature, environmental literacy, and pro-environmental behaviors. Cross comparison between states will help in identifying critical exposure time frames, optimal contact settings, and the most fundamental environmental knowledge. A coordinated effort will also enable replication across environmental settings to assess the robustness of environmental literacy determinants, as well as the long-term implications of nature contact and environmental literacy.

Given the multiple recreation-related indicators of community vibrancy and resilience, there is a need for a coordinated effort to solidify the role of parks and other green spaces on community-level outcomes. In other words, a Multi-State effort would enable more quantitative assessments to identify the influences that park and recreation services have on promoting community vibrancy and resilience. To complete such a complex task, a coordinated effort is needed to develop, refine and employ instruments that can consistently measure the role of parks, green space, and recreation services on community vibrancy and resilience. Once key measures of community vibrancy and resilience are determined, a Multi-State project will further enable replication to determine the robustness of the measures.

This research will be coupled with extension efforts in each state that will disseminate results to recreation, health, educational and community professionals through workshops, presentations, and publications. Results will be widely disseminated through synthesis articles, centers and institutes, land grant outlets at colleges and universities, professional organizations (NRPA, SAF, IANSR, etc.), and Cooperative Extension. A coordinated approach will facilitate the incorporation of extension efforts during research design, data collection and generation, and interpretation of results. This will facilitate the practical application of the Multi-State effort.

Expected Impacts.

We expect this work to lead to improvements in the health of Americans, which will in turn decrease national health care costs due to the prevention of illnesses known to be associated with obesity, lack of physical activity and diminished contacts with nature. Promoting active and healthy lifestyles and environmental literacy among youth will improve future generations' quality of life. Quality of life will also be promoted from this research by supporting vibrant and resilient communities, in which outdoor recreation opportunities and green infrastructure serve not only to protect and sustain ecosystems but also to provide ecological, economic, social, physical and psychological services upon which human health depends. We expect this work to have broad positive effects on human, community and ecological health.

Related, Current and Previous Work

Recreation and health.

Research on outdoor recreation-associated health benefits has been increasing but typically focuses on specific risk factors (e.g. physical inactivity) rather than outcomes (e.g. healthy weight). Kaczynski and Henderson's (2007) review of 50 empirical studies examining associations between physical activity and park and recreation services found mixed results: 20 studies positive, 20 mixed, 9 no significant associations and one negative. Still, research asserts the positive association between proximity to parks and trails and physical activity across age groups (Boone-Heinonen, Casanova, Richardson, & Gordon-Larsen, 2010; Cohen et al., 2007; Frank, Kerr, Chapman, & Sallis, 2007; Roemmich et al., 2006).

In terms of health outcomes, the limited research reveals no statistical association between indicators of recreation opportunity and healthy weight among youth (Potwarka, Kaczynski, & Flack, 2008) or between a neighborhood's access to open space and Body Mass Index (Witten, Hiscock, Pearce, & Blakely, 2008). However, Bell, Wilson, and Liu (2008) reported that greenness was generally associated with a reduction in body mass index in children.

Healthy weight and BMI are two physical health outcomes. In another recent literature review focused on parks and other green environments, Kuo (2010) summarizes rigorous, interdisciplinary and global evidence that persons living in greener neighborhoods have better social, psychological and physical health outcomes that those who do not, even when controlling for socioeconomic and other possibly competing variables. Of particular relevance to this project, contact with nature has been shown to reduce ADHD in children (Faber Taylor & Kuo, 2009). Kuo concludes that nearby spectacular scenery and/or physical activity alone are not necessary for achieving positive health effects. Healthy human functioning is sustained as well by the sensory experience stimulated by views of trees and vegetation and/or a walk in a green setting.

Studies involving self-reports tend to be in the positive direction regarding park access and health benefits. Local park and recreation users studied by Godbey et al. (1998) reported fewer visits to a physician for purposes other than check-ups than did non-park users, and active park users had better self-reported health and other indicators of good health than did passive users and non-park users. More recent literature reviews confirm these findings (Ho, Payne, Orsega-Smith, & Godbey 2003; Maller, Townsend, Pryor, Brown, and St. Ledger 2005).

The majority of outdoor recreation and health research focuses on communities or neighborhoods. When examined at a larger geographic scale, research related to park proximity and health beyond is similarly inconsistent as found in Kaczynski and Henderson's (2007) review. The four published studies at the macro-level reveal stronger connections exist between state level outdoor recreation opportunities and physical activity than between outdoor recreation opportunities and obesity (Edwards et al., 2011; Rosenberger et al., 2005; Rosenberger et al., 2009; West et al., In press).

Much work has focused on urban parks, however Kline, Rosenberger, and White (2011) found that national forest lands significantly contribute to physical activity among the U.S. American public. Children with closer access to recreational facilities and programs have been shown to be are more active (e.g. Cohen et al., 2007). However, studies reveal as many as half of park users are sedentary (Floyd, Spengler, Maddock, Gobster, & Suau, 2008; Shores & West, 2008).

Regardless of proximity or access, constraints to outdoor recreation intervene to prevent interest, participation and subsequent benefit attainment (Jackson & Scott, 1999). Initially, Crawford and Godbey (1987) identified three types of constraints: intrapersonal constraints (e.g., perceived lack of skill), interpersonal constraints (e.g., no one to go with), and structural constraints (e.g., lack of time/money). The latest evolution of constraints research differentiates structural constraints into four sub-categories: natural environment, social environment, territorial, and institutional (Walker & Virden, 2005). Structural constraints are of primary interest for this project as they appear the most manageable.

Recreation and environmental literacy.

Finding strong associations between various components of environmental literacy (e.g., knowledge and awareness) and behavior has proven to be elusive. The oldest and simplest models of pro-environmental behavior proposed the following relationship, which was shown to be wrong (Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002):

Environmental knowledge --> Environmental attitude --> Pro-environmental behavior

Simply put, increases in knowledge and positive attitudes were found not to lead to pro-environmental behavior. More advanced theories, models and methodologies have been proposed to clarify the complex relationship between attitude and behavior measurement (e.g., Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980; Hines, Hungerford & Tomera, 1986; Hungerford & Volk, 1990; Stern, Dietz & Karlof, 1993; Hsu, 2004; Wells & Lekies, 2006). However, discovering a single framework or model can that captures the complexity of the forces that shape environmental behavior has also proven to be elusive.

Instead of trying to find the all-encompassing framework, some researchers have focused their attention on the factors that are thought to influence pro-environmental behavior (Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002). Gender and years of education are consistently linked to environmental attitude, knowledge and willingness to change. Age and income have also been studied, but results are mixed and context-specific (Barr, 2003; Cottrell, 2003; Larson et al., 2011). Consistent with previous studies, most researchers find that environmental knowledge accounts for only small amounts of variation in pro-environmental behavior (e.g., Kempton et al., 1995; Maitney, 2002; Morrone et al., 2001; Siemer & Knuth, 2001; Stables and Bishop, 2001). Early childhood experience was not studied to any systematic extent prior to 2002, but recent evidence is reviewed below. Direct links between environmental attitudes and pro-environmental behavior have yielded mixed results, with level of association increasing as the specificity of the attitude matches the specificity of the targeted behavior. Kollmuss and Agyeman (2002) conclude their review of various models and factors by arguing that establishing new behavior requires practice and enough persistence until it becomes a habit.

Maitney's (2002) research provides evidence for the centrality of emotional involvement and direct experience in sustaining pro-environmental values and behavior. In congruence with Maitney, Siemer and Knuth (2001) found that fishing programs with direct fishing experience, the teaching of fishing skills and mentoring were more likely to influence antecedents of responsible behaviors in 12-14 year olds than fishing education programs without these elements. Other researchers have found an association between (a) outdoor recreation participation and environmental sensitivity (Palmer, 1993; Tanner, 1980) and (b) outdoor recreation and environmental knowledge and concern (Kellert, 1985).

Morrone, Mancl and Carr (2001) argue that ecological knowledge is a necessary, but insufficient, component of environmental literacy. Through a review of the literature and the use of experts, Morrone et al. (2001) developed an instrument that measured eight critical dimensions of ecological knowledge. In a study of Ohio residents, they found their instrument to be compatible with the theoretical literature and capable of discerning important group differences and similarities, including minority and nonminority variation.

Nisbet, Zelenski, and Murphy (2009) proposed a nature relatedness construct to describe the connectedness individuals experience with the natural world. This construct encompasses an individual's feelings for and appreciation of nature, as well as an understanding of the importance of nature. Findings suggest that individuals with higher nature relatedness spent more time outdoors participating in nature-related activities, were more often involved in environmental groups and pro-environmental behaviors such as sustainable consumption, and had stronger views about ecological problems.

The concept of action competence may also be related to the idea of environmental literacy. According to Jensen and Schnack (2006), action competence comprises both the analysis of environmental problems and the ability to envision and act on alternate environmental developments. Gooch et al. (2008) found that the development of "action-oriented" unit lesson plans could be effective in empowering students to act environmentally. Chawla and Cushing (2007), in their review of the findings of studies on action competence, found multiple factors to influence pro-environmental behaviors, including: experiencing nature as a child, having role models, participation in environmental organizations, and the development of action skills.

Research based on place-based learning likewise offers potential in expanding knowledge of environmental literacy (Johnson, Duffin, & Murphy, 2012). Kudryavtsev, Krasny and Stedman (2012) found that programs involving youth in environmental stewardship, recreation, environmental skills development, and environmental monitoring increased ecological place meaning, but did not strengthen students' place attachment.

In terms of research on youth and lifespan development, Wells and Lekies (2006) provide a review of the scholarship in three areas: outcomes of outdoor play and access to nature, environmental education program efficacy, and role of significant life experiences in adult environmental commitment. As to outdoor play and access to nature, studies have found evidence of short term links between contact with nature and children's emotional and cognitive well-being (Faber Taylor, Kuo, & Sullivan, 2001; Faber Taylor, Kuo & Sullivan, 2002; Kellert, 2002; Wells, 2000; Wells & Evans, 2003. A few studies have examined longer term associations with a variety of dependent variables. Bixler, Floyd and Hammitt (2002) found support for the influence of childhood play outdoors on adolescent environmental preferences, outdoor recreation participation and outdoor occupations. Lohr and Pearson-Mims (2005) learned that childhood activities connected to plants (growing up next to a garden, picking vegetables, planting trees, etc.) and time spent outdoors with trees or in parks predicted adulthood beliefs about plants and the propensity to complete a gardening class. Environmental education research has focused on the extent to which such programs result in knowledge, attitude or behavior change and typically utilize pre- and post-program measures over relatively short time spans (e.g., Armstrong & Impara, 1991; Kellert, 1985; Pooley & O'Connor, 2000; Ramsey & Hungerford, 1989). Significant life experiences research explores the association between childhood nature experiences and adult environmental commitment primarily among environmental professionals or activists. A major finding is that childhood experiences with nature create a pathway to environmentalism among the groups studied (Chawla, 1999; Corcoran, 1999; Sward, 1999). However, Wells and Lekies (2006) surmise that the generalizabililty such findings are limited due to the almost exclusive focus on environmental activists or professionals. Wells and Lekies conclude that long-term effects of early childhood unstructured play outdoors on older adult environmental knowledge, attitudes and behaviors have not been substantiated.

In an attempt to fill this research void, Wells and Lekies (2006) employed a long-term, life course perspective and structural equation modeling based on results from a large representative sample of 2,000 individuals, aged 18-90, who were also urban dwellers. Controlling for age, race, gender, income and education, they were found evidence for a significant, positive association between childhood nature experiences and adult environmental attitudes and behaviors.

Recreation and community resiliency and vibrancy.

According to the American Institute of Architects (AIA), vibrant public spaces encourage interpersonal interaction, collective engagement in community events and civic participation (AIA, 2007). In the outdoor recreation field, the vibrancy construct is not well developed but it is thought to foster resilience and promote sustainable communities (McManus et al., 2012). Resilience is a reflection of a system's overall health and sustainability (Cumming et al., 2005). In the context of coupled social-ecological systems, resilience has been defined as, the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks (Forbes et al., 2009, p. 22041). The idea of resilience in a coupled social-ecological system is associated with adaptive renewal and sustainability rather than stability or a static, unchanging system (Gunderson and Holling, 2002). Current work and previous work related to vibrancy and resilience in a few key areas are highlighted in the following subsections.

Communities and change.

A community's growth trajectory may change dependent upon unplanned (e.g., natural disasters) or planned events (e.g., policy change). Growth of a community or its ability to respond to change without negatively altering a desired growth pattern is at the heart of a vibrant community's resilience and ultimate survival and prosperity. The 21st century has illuminated that many natural resources are not renewable and can easily be compromised, placing the health and vibrancy of a community in jeopardy.

After examining U.S. rural counties, (Reeder & Brown, 2005) concluded that areas dependent on recreation and tourism faired better than other rural counties on key social-economic indicators. Counties located near metropolitan areas or significant natural resources heightened most impacts in a positive direction. Reeder and Brown, and others who study amenity rich communities, attribute population and economic growth to natural resources for recreation, tourism, and housing choices. Gateway communities or towns and cities in the wildland-urban interface enjoy many benefits attributed to the natural resources nearby. A growing society of retirees and more professions that enable off-corporate or campus work environments is piquing the interest of urban dwellers to live where the natural resources are plentiful and of high quality, thereby offering outdoor recreation activities and lifestyles (Crompton, 2007).

Communities that recognize and plan for change are more likely to be resilient. Scientists and community outreach specialists, however, need to identify case studies and indicators that describe the substance of communities. They also need to model the processes by which change was managed and vibrancy and resilience were achieved (Bosselman, Peterson, & McCarthy, 1999).

Civic ecology and conservation recreation.

As noted by Leopold (1938) and others (e.g., Scott, 1958), participation in outdoor recreation in and of itself is no guarantee that conservation will be accomplished, and could instead result in ecological damage and even loss of social capital through exclusion of some potential participants. Tidball and Krasny (2010) defined conservation activities that include a civic purpose as civic ecology practices (p. 1). They noted that, although often viewed as initiatives to improve a degraded environment, [these practices] also foster social attributes of resilient social-ecological systems, including volunteer engagement and social connectedness (Tidball & Krasny, 2010, p. 1). Civic ecology practices such as tree planning, habitat restoration and community gardening can occur across the rural-urban continuum (Krasny & Tidball, 2010). Within the universe of civic ecology practices is a subset of nature-based activities that might be defined as conservation recreation activities. Conservation recreation occurs when the activities lead to the full suite of well-being outcomes purported to arise from civic ecology practices, including individual, community and ecological well-being.

Sense of place.

Having urban community open spaces has been associated with reports of a strong sense of community, or perceptions of a healthier community among community residents (DeGraaf & Jordan, 2003; Furnham & Cheng, 2000; Kesebir & Deiner, 2008; Kweon, Sullivan, & Wiley, 1998; Peters, Elands, & Buijs, 2010). There is evidence to suggest that people tend to prefer green spaces over paved spaces (Coley, Kuo, & Sullivan, 1997), but the reasons for those preferences are not well understood. Research is needed to document the full range of benefits that neighborhood parks and natural areas provide, both as catalysts of social cohesion, and as providers of ecosystem services.

Parks, natural areas, and other types of open space have the potential to create a sense of place that yields psychological and environmental stewardship benefits. Several studies have found a positive association between sense of place and pro-environmental behaviors (Stedman, 2002; Walker & Chapman, 2003; Ryan, 2005; Halpenny, 2010; Scannell & Gifford 2010), leading to the research hypothesis that pro-environmental behaviors can be encouraged by getting people engaged in activities that elevate sense of place and place attachment (Walker & Chapman, 2003).

Repurposing outdoor spaces.

Through the community change process, many remnants or overused parcels of land fall into disuse and may be left aside with diminished value. Community planners and park and recreation professionals are viewing these sites that may be former housing torn down, former military sites, former industrial corridors, landfills and former transportation lines as opportunities for redevelopment and the creation of new places for outdoor recreation and tourism. These redevelopment sites have been shown to revitalize natural habitats, sometimes with the original species, and mitigate urban sprawl by infilling in the core of a community rather than the edges. Repurposing of natural resources may be one of the prime examples of sustainable development and systems thinking.

Johnson, Glover, & William (2009) studied a landfill-to-park redevelopment through the views of a nearby neighborhood. The research illustrates that community planning is necessary to create sense of place in an abandoned site that is a threat to human health and quality of life. Klenosky, LeBlanc, Vogt and Schroeder (2008), along with Forest Service scientists and park managers, have studied several repurposing brownfields in Midwest and Eastern cities. These spaces integrate nature's resiliency with the human desire to recreate in a variety of outdoor spaces. Rail corridors converted into bike and walking trails is another example of repurposing industrial landscapes. Research has profiled the nature and level of use, as well as the importance of rail-trails to foster active transportation and physical exercise for residents and tourists of all ages.

Scholars also are beginning to investigate how outdoor spaces undergo spontaneous, unplanned repurposing, and what those changes imply for land stewardship and community vibrancy and resilience. Creation of outdoor spaces and sacred places (OSSP) is often the result of spontaneous, self-organizing acts that are motivated by stewards' sense of community and need for healing rituals, and are expressed through myriad relationships with nature (Roberts, 2002; Svendsen & Campbell, 2010; Tidball et al., 2010). As such, the emergence of OSSPs is part of a socio-ecological process of disturbance and resilience (Berkes & Folke, 1998, 2002; Stedman & Ingalls, in press). Stewards use their immediate landscape act as a mechanism to foster collective resilience in the aftermath of a crisis (Tidball 2010; Tidball & Krasny, in press). This "adaptive capacity" of environmental stewards is essential to a healthy society and to overall ecosystem function (Folke et al., 2003; Gallopin, 2006; Tidball and Krasny, 2007).

The act of local OSSP creation and stewardship is an act fundamental to the healing process of those involved (Tidball et al., 2010). Studies of environmental volunteers find that stewardship activities help to lessen feelings of isolation and disempowerment and can strengthen neighborhood attachment (Townsend, 2006; Svendsen & Campbell, 2006; Comstock et al., 2010). Research on urban greening has shown that different benefits from these projects are derived at the individual, organization, and community levels (Westphal, 2003, 1999; Wolf, 2008). Studies of community gardeners have found that at the individual level, stewardship can promote relaxation, mitigate stress, create self-confidence, and strengthen sense of control and self-efficacy; at the collective level it can help to establish trust, strengthen social cohesion, share knowledge, and leave a legacy (Baker, 2004; Dow, 2006; Glover et al., 2005; Saldivar-Tanaka & Krasny, 2004; Svendsen, 2009; Teig et al., 2009).

Furthermore, studies have pointed to the therapeutic and symbolic value of trees, treescapes, and other aspects of nature (Anderson, 2004; Jones & Cloke, 2002; Miller, 1997; Perlman, 1994). Plants, as well as interacting with plants (e.g., through gardening, tree planting), appear to aid in resistance and resilience through psychophysiological effects (Hartig et al., 1991; Heerwagen, 2009; Korpela & Ylen, 2007; Kuo, 2001; Kuo & Sullivan, 2001; Kweon et al., 1998; McCaffrey et al., 2010; Wells, 2003). Nature is also a crucial resource for communities recovering from disaster (Hull, 1992; Ottosson & Grahn, 2008).

The purpose of this project is to provide evidence for the role of and mechanisms by which parks and other green environments support human well-being in three areas (health, environmental literacy, community vibrancy/resilience) and extend the knowledge gained to practitioners and other affected groups.


  1. Demonstrate and expand the evidence for the role of park and outdoor recreation services in promoting physical activity and associated preventative health benefits, particularly among youth.
  2. Demonstrate and expand the evidence for the role of park and outdoor recreation services in promoting environmental literacy among youth, and document the long-term influences of early lifespan connections with nature.
  3. Demonstrate and expand the evidence for the role of park and outdoor recreation services in promoting community vibrancy and resilience.


Objective 1: Demonstrate and expand the evidence for the role of park and outdoor recreation services in promoting physical activity and associated preventative health benefits, particularly among youth, as well as constraints to this activity. A variety of methods have been and will continue to be used for understanding physical activity and outdoor activities, as well as constraints to outdoor activities. Surveys, interviews, direct observation and GIS examine not only the amount and type of physical activity by various age and ethnic groups, but also constraints to such activity and the key role of proximity. Expanding this systems-based approach to account for a broader array of socio-ecological forces and interactions is needed. Auditing and assessment tools (e.g., SOPLAY-System for Observing Play and Leisure Activity in Youth; and NEWS-Neighborhood Environment Walkability Scale) are furthering the evidence and information, as is photo elicitation. Photo elicitation was used by Montanez et al. (2012) to explore children's perceptions of places to be physically active. Behavioral monitoring devices, such as pedometers and accelerometers are used to measure volume and intensity of activity associated with various types of outdoor facilities and amenities. Concentration performance tests, clinical depression diagnostic tools, physiological measures using standard medical instrumentation and protocols (blood pressure, pulse, nerve and brain wave activity, blood cortisol and glucose levels, immune cells, etc.), experimental designs and large scale studies with statistical controls have been and are being employed in separate studies across the US and in other countries. The linkage between outdoor physical activity and longer-term well-being has yet to be established. Discovering evidence for such a linkage will require cross-sectional, longitudinal and experimental designs. Determining the validity of the assumption that the amount of outdoor physical activity is declining across broad segments of the population will require establishing baseline for comparison purposes. Meta-analyses of previous published research and identification of unpublished data are two methods for establishing a baseline. Subsequently, monitoring in multiple states for comparison purposes using a variety of behavioral (e.g., accelerometer) and direct observation procedures should be implemented; settings should also be varied (private residences, city streets, schoolyards, city, state and national parks, forests, and open space, etc.). Objective 2: Demonstrate and expand the evidence for the role of park and outdoor recreation services in promoting environmental literacy among youth, and document the long-term influences of early lifespan connections with nature. Research on the correlation between reduced outdoor recreation, contact with nature and reduced environmental literacy is primarily based on single case studies and anecdotal evidence popularized by Richard Louv and the Nature-Deficit Disorder concept. The majority of research has been quantitative studies of specific environmental education programs that are short term, rely mostly on retrospective self-reports, and lack longitudinal programmatic evaluations (Wells and Lekies, 2006). Studies providing evidence for short-term associations between childhood nature contact and adult environmental outcomes are fairly numerous, but they are 10 to 15 years old and mostly correlational. The study by Hsu (2004) is more recent, but again only provides results related to short-term impacts (two months). In addition, the results were based on a sample of college students who took a formal environmental education class. There is still much to learn about the effect of childhood experience with nature and unstructured outdoor play on adult environmentalism (literacy and behavior). Despite the lack of long-term experimental evidence, researchers have developed theoretical frameworks necessary to begin experimental and longitudinal research (Tidball & Krasny, 2011; Wimberley, 2009). These theoretical frameworks encourage nested research that studies humans within larger social and environmental systems. Additionally, researchers have developed instruments to assess the impacts of environmental education efforts on environmental quality (Duffin, Murphy, & Johnson, 2008; Short, 2009). Thus, one group of scholars is calling for a current and sustained research effort focused on establishing causality, utilizing experimental or quasi-experimental designs and prospective, longitudinal designs. Others disagree (Courtney-Hall & Rogers, 2002; Maiteny, 2002), arguing that the behavior-modeling, causality approach creates epistemological problems. Instead of relying on positivistic, deterministic approaches to understanding environmental literacy, Courtney-Hall and Rogers (2002) emphasize the need for more interpretive research approaches and equal use of qualitative procedures. Thus, other scholars are interested in taking advantage of emerging methodologies that utilize a mixed methods research approach. Through the use of research techniques such as interviews and surveys, these researchers will be able to explore elements related to contact with nature and environmental literacy, and then quantify these elements. Concepts identified in interviews and findings of previous studies on environmental literacy (Wells & Lekies, 2006; Ewert, Place & Sibthorp, 2005; Lohr & Pearson-Mims, 2005; Roth, 1992) will be used to develop survey instruments; demographic questions and questions about the type of environmental settings primarily experienced during childhood (e.g., urban, rural) will also be included. Objective 3: Demonstrate and expand the evidence for the role of park and outdoor recreation services in promoting community vibrancy and resilience. In addition to traditional quantitative and qualitative methods, research and engagement methods in this category could include community-based participatory research methods, such as Becker, Harris, McLaughlin and Nielsen's (2003) Interactive Community Forum, or participatory modeling strategies similar to those described by Chase et al. (2010). Researchers could also include economic analyses, using input/output and counterfactual models designed to assess the development of tourism-based industry in rural locations. Past examples include assessments of development adjacent to high amenity resources, such as gateway communities to national parks (Krannich & Petrazelka, 2003), and regional economic indices developed by Eschker (Humboldt State University) and Lee (Plymouth State University). Researchers who examine the roles of green environments in urban communities are using unique, non-survey procedures. For example, researchers in Illinois have documented negative correlations between natural areas and crime through methods such as photo elicitation (Kuo, Bacaicoa, & Sullivan, 1998) and comparing aerial photography and crime reports (Kuo & Sullivan, 2001). Additionally, The Trust for Public Land documents the willingness of community members to be taxed for parks and green space preservation through its analysis of ballot initiatives. GIS applications are becoming common within community-based recreation research to visually identify the links between community indicators and parks, recreation resources, and other green environments. Systems-based approaches are also being seen as essential in order to adequately explain the influences of a broad array of socio-ecological forces and interactions.

Measurement of Progress and Results


  • Development of environmental and outdoor programs targeted toward specific youth populations.
  • Development of reliable and valid scales that measure the diverse ways that children engage with nature, adult environmental attitudes and adult environmental behaviors.
  • Development of measures to assess the extent to which environmental literacy goals and outcomes are achieved.
  • Peer-reviewed publications and professional conference presentations that document the role of parks and outdoor recreation service in promoting physical activity and other preventative health benefits, especially among youth.
  • Peer-reviewed publications and professional conference presentations that document the role of parks and outdoor recreation service in promoting associated preventative health benefits, especially among youth.
  • Peer-reviewed publications and professional conference presentations that document the role of park and outdoor recreation services in promoting environmental literacy among youth.
  • Peer-reviewed publications and professional conference presentations that document long-term influences of early lifespan connections with nature, particularly in relation to environmental literacy and pro-environmental behaviors, including policy support and stewardship engagement.
  • Peer-reviewed publications and professional conference presentations that document the role of park and outdoor recreation services in promoting community vibrancy and resilience, particularly as it relates to transformative communities, economic development, governance, civic ecology and conservation recreation, sense of place, and repurposing outdoor spaces.
  • Three coordinated conference or symposium sessions that present the mechanisms by which parks and other green environments support (1) human health, (2) environmental literacy and (3) community vibrancy, as well as fostering continued and new engagement in this Multistate Research Project.
  • Standardized 1-2 page factsheets on study findings that will be distributed to recreation program managers at various government agencies (local, state and federal) and nongovernmental organizations.
  • Workshop at conference, symposium, or annual meeting to train researchers and extension specialists in the methods developed and implemented to increase national coordination.
  • Centralized location (e.g., Multistate Research Project on NIMMS or other website) for instrument sharing.
  • Project Synthesis papers, fact sheets and presentations for professional associations, such as the National Association of Recreation Resource Planners (NARRP) & National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) and for dissemination to practitioners.

Outcomes or Projected Impacts

  • Increased participation rates in active outdoor recreation, particularly among youth.
  • Health education requirements include outdoor recreation
  • School-based recreation programs promote healthy lifestyle choices.
  • Increased prescription of outdoor recreation by medical providers.
  • Infrastructure that supports healthy lifestyle choices, such as increased pedestrian and bicycle transportation coordinators to schools.
  • Citizens engages with natural resources, including participation in environmental education, interpretation and conservation stewardship programs.
  • Citizens engage in proximate nature based recreation opportunities.
  • Citizens engage in pro-environmental behaviors.
  • National education curriculum includes experiential environmental education.
  • Recreation planning decisions made with increased public engagement and related planning documents and policy.
  • Recreation planning documents incorporate resilience, vibrancy and recreation.
  • Forecast recreation visitor volume and trends, and plan for appropriate recreation management responses.
  • Public awareness of active recreation opportunities and relationships to personal health.
  • Increased understanding of the physical health benefits of recreation in parks and other green environments, particularly in relation to obesity.
  • Increased understanding of the mechanisms through which health benefits, particularly in relation to healthy human habitat, occur.
  • Increased understanding of the role of outdoor recreation on enhancing retention and school performance among youth.
  • Identification of critical developmental points that more important than others in terms of childhood engagement with nature.
  • Public awareness of environmental and ecosystem processes.
  • Public awareness of environmental footprint (individual consumption), including recreation-related footprints and impacts.
  • Documentation of the relationship between contact with nature and environmental literacy.
  • Increased understanding of the strength of relationships between unstructured and structured (i.e., environmental education programs) contact with nature and environmental literacy.
  • Documentation of trends in unstructured outdoor play (i.e., amount of time spent in unstructured outdoor play).
  • Awareness among community leaders and entrepreneurs of the role of park and outdoor recreation services in promoting community vibrancy and resilience.
  • Awareness among citizens of role of natural resource amenities and recreation service delivery systems on tax revenues.
  • Awareness among researchers and providers of standardized methods and instruments to measure community vibrancy and resilience related to outdoor recreation, parks and other green environments.
  • Increased understanding of the ecological, economic and social contributions of recreation to community vibrancy and resilience.
  • Increased understanding of outdoor recreations role in larger socio-ecological systems in terms its contribution to human health, environmental literarcy and community vibrancy and resilience.
  • Reduced levels of obesity, particularly among youth.
  • Reduced strain on healthcare costs and the healthcare system.
  • Reduced dependence on prescription drugs, such as those that treat attention-deficit disorder and hyperactivity.
  • Improved social networks and community ties from increased contact with community members during outdoor recreation.
  • Increased work productivity.
  • Reduction of depression and increased self-esteem.
  • Greater support for environmental policies.
  • Informed participation during public involvement and deliberative processes.
  • The presence of recreation stakeholders in land use management planning, particularly regarding open space zoning and use.
  • Inclusive and tailored recreation opportunities for a diverse public.
  • Youth who become responsible outdoor recreationists and resource stewards.
  • Public has attachment with the natural environment and a sense of p


  • Solicitation of formal outreach programming initiatives by university Extension and outreach faculty and specialists.
  • Categorized inventory of ongoing projects across multi-state partners.
  • Documentation of contributors and resources across multi-state partners.
  • Identification of funding opportunities.
  • Website development with communication forums and shared file storage across multi-state partners.
  • Host a webinar to increase participation.
  • Joint grant proposals initiated.
  • Instrument and scale development initiated.

  • Instrument and scale development completed.
  • Coordination in ongoing research.
  • Identification of funding opportunities.
  • Acquisition of integrated, collaborative and/or coordinated grants.
  • Outreach information dissemination of existing projects.
  • Publication of ongoing research.

  • Instrument and scale replication.
  • Coordination in ongoing research.
  • Identification of funding opportunities.
  • Acquisition of integrated, collaborative and/or coordinated grants.
  • Outreach information dissemination of existing projects.
  • Publication of ongoing research.

  • Instrument and scale replication.
  • Coordination in ongoing research.
  • Identification of funding opportunities.
  • Acquisition of integrated, collaborative and/or coordinated grants.
  • Outreach information dissemination of existing projects.
  • Publication of ongoing research.
  • National/internal conference panel discussions disseminating results for each objective.

  • Outreach information dissemination of existing projects.
  • Publication of ongoing research.
  • National/internal conference panel discussion evaluating MultiState Project and coordinating efforts for future MultiState Project.

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Outreach Plan

Research results from NE-1962 are of interest to academic audiences as well as various publics including community and youth leaders, policymakers, K-12 schools and organizations. During the first year of this project, efforts will be made to invite Extension faculty and specialists to integrate formal outreach programming into the project. NE-1962 members will make research results available through scientific journals, Extension publications, fact sheets, popular press news articles, and appropriate websites and social media outlets. In addition, NE-1962 members will present at national and international conferences as well as regional and local workshops and meetings. A listing of publications by NE-1962 members will be updated annually and posted on the official NE-1962 website. Internal communication related to NE-1962 will be facilitated by the annual meeting, official website, and google group.


The organization of project NE-1962 was established in accordance with the Manual for Cooperative Regional Research. A Technical Committee will be formed that grants voting membership for elections. One representative from each participating organization, agency or institution can serve on the Technical Committee, with appointments made through appropriate administrative channels of the organization, agency or institution. In year one, a Chair will be elected and will serve a one-year term. Primary duties of the Chair include: scheduling and organizing the annual meeting, managing participant contact information lists, and managing the communication network. A Chair Elect will be elected in years 1, 2, 3, and 4, serving a one-year term before serving as the Chair in the subsequent year. Duties of the Chair Elect include: serving as secretary and drafting and submitting the annual report. All appointments (chair, chair-elect, and technical committee) will be annual with terms beginning October 1. Each year a 1-2 day annual meeting will be held, in a location chosen by the chair and with in-person participation only.

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Land Grant Participating States/Institutions


Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

Auburn University, North Carolina State University, Plymouth State University, U.S. Department of the Interior - National Park Service, University of Missouri - Columbia, University of Northern Iowa, University of South Carolina, University of Utah, USDA-ARS/ND, Washington University in St. Louis
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