Kids, teens, adults, let's take the parks!

Sunday afternoon, I go out for a walk with my daughter, a friend of hers and my mother. We are on our way to one of the urban gardens in the Bellas Vistas neighborhood, Tetuán district in Madrid. We arrive at a tiny nameless park full of boys and girls, probably Dominicans, Pakistanis, and gypsies enjoying the swings, the water fountain or playing soccer… In one corner, tall, leafy trees provide good shade. to the older ones that we are chatting on the benches. We come home much better than we left. It is desirable that this should happen every evening.

Thursday afternoon in the neighborhood of Canyelles, district of Nou Barris in Barcelona, ​​I visit a community activity. Adolescents, street educators and health technicians paint a huge mural on a large cement wall. Above the wall are the courts of the Atlético Canyelles petanque club full of men and women, older and not so old, very entertained showing off their throwing ability. A hundred meters below there is a huge skate park and sports fields packed with teenagers playing volleyball, soccer and basketball, in the background two huge and colorful graffiti. Adults and adolescents take over their parks, their walls and their open sports fields.

Both neighborhoods, Bellas Vistas and Canyelles, have very high percentages of immigrant population and a low socioeconomic level within the cities of Madrid and Barcelona. They are examples of the mixed and multicultural city, the non-segregated one. They are neighborhoods where health levels fall and chronic diseases are more prevalent than the city average. Underserved areas, as Dr. Mary Bassett would call them in the United States. In these neighborhoods and their parks, as in many similar ones, invaluable health promotion activities are carried out, although many media outlets continue to stigmatize these neighbours.

Urban health research studies the relationship between urban parks and the health of those who live or use them. A park is a green space that, due to its size and characteristics, allows its users to socialize and carry out activities in them. That is why it is essential to ask a 75-year-old grandfather and his granddaughters aged 5, 9 and 13 what attracts them to go and spend so many hours in a park. Women and men of all ages, boys and girls need different green spaces to carry out different activities.

A group of children skates in the Retiro park.
A group of children skates in the Retiro park.RAUL URBINA

Urban health studies identify at least two reasons why better health is associated with the use of parks: 1) The increase in physical activity that occurs there and 2) The greater and better socialization that is generated in the parks. parks. Social cohesion promotes health. Leaving home and going to the park, walking, playing petanque, playing sports on its open fields, or having a “park gang” as my daughters say, helps us in the socialization process, which has been so necessary in times of pandemic. However, scientific studies show over and over again, in different cities and continents, how neighborhoods with a higher socioeconomic level have better cared for, safer and used parks, and their inhabitants generally enjoy greater exposure to green areas. These are precisely the populations that have higher levels of health, lower morbidity and mortality, the ones that least need better parks, as the SALURBAL project showed, in an analysis of 28 Latin American cities. An analysis of that same project, this time in 11 Latin American cities, showed how proximity, the good condition of the parks and good communication increased their use.

Forty-three thousand deaths a year could be prevented if WHO recommendations on access to green spaces at a distance of no more than 300 meters from each home were followed, according to a major study carried out in more than a thousand cities in 31 countries by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health. These numbers should force us to talk to our planners every morning, every evening. And convince them that the local parks, the nameless ones, are the ones that serve us on a day-to-day basis and the ones that really make a difference.

In Madrid, an interdisciplinary team of urban scientists studied, using mixed, qualitative and quantitative methodologies, the use of parks located in three neighborhoods with high, medium and low socioeconomic levels. And we observed less use of these, and less intense levels of physical activity, in neighborhoods of medium and low socioeconomic status. Women do less physical exercise than men in the three neighbourhoods. The barriers that were identified for the use of their parks were the lack of time, due to their long working and commuting hours, dirt, poor maintenance of the parks and the perceived insecurity in them. This last barrier was especially mentioned by the women interviewed. A participatory study carried out by the University of Alcalá and the Madrid City Council on the urban environment and physical activity in the districts of Villaverde and Chamberí in Madrid made it clear that residents were asking for more organized activities in the parks, as well as the need to improve and adapt the conditions of the parks to be physically active.

In the case of the smallest citizens, we know that, among the factors related to childhood obesity, are physical inactivity and the continued use of screens. The PASOS study, carried out in 2019 by the Gasol Foundation, showed that only 36.7% of the child and adolescent population meet the WHO recommendation of at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity each day, however, they spend almost three hours a day using screens. If, for example, our children and adolescents spend five hours a week in the park, we would be adding those hours of physical activity, relationships and social integration that probably improve their quality of sleep and undoubtedly imply fewer hours of screen time.

Spending hours in the park, belonging to an open-air dance or petanque club, regularly playing on its courts, or simply having a “park gang” as my daughters say, will allow us to achieve better neighborhoods. The citizens, the local administrations, must take care of, defend and take over the parks so that the entire population can enjoy them. We would be healthier and happier.

Manuel Franco He is a professor and researcher in Epidemiology and Public Health at the universities of Alcalá, Spain and Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, USA. His research projects focus on Urban Health and Social Epidemiology. He has directed the project Heart Healthy Hoods (HHH), first project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) to study the physical and social characteristics of neighborhoods and the health of their residents.

Health goes by neighborhoods It is a section that explains in a simple and friendly tone the concepts and advances of research in Urban Health, a necessarily interdisciplinary area of ​​Public Health. Urban Health research aims to improve our cities to improve the health of the millions of people who inhabit the complex and unequal cities that characterize life on our planet today.

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