The Influence of Sunshine and Pure Air: New York City Parks and Public Health

By Emily Miranker, Project Coordinator

My first picnic of the summer was picture-book perfect. Norman Rockwell would have approved: my friends and I clustered on blankets sipping lemonade, lightly toasted by the sun and gently cooled by a breeze, occasionally tossing a stray ball back to a child or sharing tidbit of our cold chicken lunch with an eager puppy.

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Central Park’s Harlem Meer.  Photo:  Emily Miranker

The belief that public parks are “a fundamental need of city life,”1  goes very deep. The father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted ‑to whom (along with Calvert Vaux) New York City owes not only Central Park; but Prospect Park, Carroll Park, Fort Greene Park, the Parade Ground and Von King Park,2 commented that it was more than delight in nature that made parks so vital. There was a health benefit too. “The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.”3

The Park Association of New York City (today New Yorkers for Parks) took up Olmsted’s charge after his death. Several small associations banded together in 1908 to form The Parks and Playgrounds Association of the City of New York; primarily concerned with advocating for children with no outdoor spaces in their neighborhoods. This organization merged with the Battery Park Association and the Central Park Association to become the Park Association in 1928. “Our purpose,” they declared, was to advocate park extension, defense and betterment, as parks were “essential to the mental, moral and physical well-being of city dwellers.”4  The starting point was that ever persistent New York City need: land.

Our collection boasts a wonderfully-designed pamphlet from this period soliciting support for the Park Association.  The pamphlet argues for the maintenance of city parkland, and the acquisition and development of more land dedicated to greenspace.

The pamphlet includes a colorful fold-out map. On the map, green illustrates the city’s parks as of 1927, yellow, the land purchased and intended for park use but not yet developed, and red, land recommended for purchase by the 1927 Metropolitan Conference on Parks but not yet purchased by the city.

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Fold-out map published by the Park Association of New York City.  To Protect and Extend our City Parks for Posterity.  ca. 1927.

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Inside of pamphlet with introductory letter from President Nathan Straus.  To Protect and Extend our City Parks for Posterity.  ca. 1927.

The pamphlet’s call to action is to “make the yellow and red green.” Indeed, many of those patches on the map have since become green.

The Trust for Public Land (TPL), whose mission to create and protect land for people ensuring healthy and livable communities is much like the Park Association’s just on the national scale, spends a fair amount of time bolstering their advocacy for parks with research on the health benefits they provide. In 2006, TPL released a white paper on the health benefits of parks, underscoring the argument that parks are a wise investment for communities.5 You can read the report online for percentages, statistics, financials, and citations of peer-reviewed work; but in brief: greenways enable people to exercise, improve mental health, offer vital space for child play, and contribute to the creation of stable communities

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A 2011 geographic map of the distribution of parks and playgrounds done by the Built Environment and Health research team at Columbia University.6

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Map of New York City parkland (the dark green) created by The Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore rating system.7

A Fellow of The New York Academy of Medicine wrote on this very topic back in 1899. Dr. Orlando B. Douglas bemoans the lack of numbers to support his firm belief in the rejuvenating power of parks in The Relation of Public Parks to Public Health, written for the American Park and Outdoor Art Society. What he lacks in hard scientific data, he makes up for in poetic writing:

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Orlando B. Douglas’ The Relation of Public Parks to Public Health, published in 1899.

While he didn’t have the same kind of data to fortify his arguments available to TPL more than a hundred years later, Douglas supports his claims that “the public park system in cities resulted in diminishing the rate of nervous disease [and] the improvement of the general health in cities”9 with testimony from twenty-one other doctors throughout the state of New York. I imagine that Dr. Douglas would have been thrilled at our ability today to quantify the beneficial effects of parks; though his pamphlet is more enjoyable reading than modern white papers.

References

1.  To Protect and Extend our City Parks for Prosperity. New York: Park Association of New York City; 1929.

2. “Olmsted-Designed New York City Parks,” NYC Parks. Accessed June 14, 2016. https://www.nycgovparks.org/about/history/olmsted-parks

3. Frederick Law Olmsted, “The Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees,” The Saturday Evening Post, July 18, 1868.

4. To Protect and Extend our City Parks for Prosperity. New York: Park Association of New York City; 1929.

5. “Parks,” Built Environment and Health Research Group at Columbia University. Accessed June 14, 2016. https://beh.columbia.edu/parks/

6. “ParkScore: New York, NY,” The Trust for Public Land. Accessed June 14, 2016. http://parkscore.tpl.org/map.php?city=New%20York

7.  https://www.tpl.org/health-benefits-parks accessed June 14, 2016.

8.  The Relation of Public Parks to Public Health. Boston: Rockwell and Churchill Press; 1899.

 

Putting Asthma on the Map

By Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections

Southwest Map

Map from The South-west and New Mexico for phthisis, weak lungs, asthma, bronchitis, etc. Chicago: American Health Resort Association, 1891.

On Wednesday, December 12, 2012, Carla Keirns, MD, PhD, from the Stony Brook University School of Medicine will present this year’s John K. Lattimer Lecture, “Putting Asthma on the Map: Weather, Pollen, Pollution and the Geography of Risk.”

Dr Keirns will discuss how the patient’s environment has been central to the prevention and treatment of asthma since antiquity, and how, beginning in the 19th century, physicians learned to use measurements of humidity, sunlight and rainfall to predict places and seasons that would be safe for asthmatics. During the same period, indoor and outdoor risks such as pollen and dust began to mark regions and spaces as risky or dangerous, and led to efforts to escape attacks through travel or fortifying the home environment against triggers. Recent efforts to predict or create safe places have turned again to the outdoors, both through national regulation of air pollution and the efforts of minority communities and their academic and activist partners to document the disproportionate environmental risks faced by their members.

Register for the event here.