Students are not known for being exemplars of healthy living, but in an era of cheap mass computing this has arguably never been a more pressing concern. Many knowledge-seekers – whether studying at high school, undergraduate or postgraduate level – spend the majority of their waking lives in front of screens, using their laptops for work, leisure and everything inbetween, often at the same time: in one browser tab an essay, in another YouTube. As the world become ever more electronic and obesity transmogrifies from a localized problem in American suburbia to a global pandemic, it seems that physical exertion – including that undertaken by students – is going the way of the dodo.
In this context, both students and policymakers alike would be well-advised to pore through The Benefits of Physical Activity Provided by Park and Recreation Services: The Scientific Evidence, a recent paper by Geoffrey Godbey and Andrew Mowen of the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management at Pennsylvania State University. Godbey and Mowen skilfully outline the immense benefits that parks and similar recreational facilities confer on those that use them. Amongst their findings are the following:
1. People commonly use park and recreation services in ways that involve physical activity and contribute to their mental and physical health. A broadly representative study of adult park users in Cleveland, Ohio found that 69% reported moderate or high levels of physical activity. An average visit lasted two hours, and users spent about half their time walking;
2. A wide array of organisations interested in health – from public health departments to the RAND Corporation – now recognise parks and recreation facilities as a health service and as part of the healthcare system;
3. Even a $10.00 per capita increase in spending on parks and recreation facilities has been shown to yield a return of significantly higher amounts of physical activity in the benefiting population. Given that healthcare costs in the United States are currently around $8,000.00 per capita – almost none of it preventative – and are predicted to spiral to $13,000.00 per capita by 2018, the maintenance and development of parks would appear to be one of the more logical priorities for public officeholders to concentrate on.
The message for students is clear: parks are an incredible resource, the wise use of which can help augment health, well-being, and perhaps even creativity and excellence; it is probably no coincidence that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge consist in the main of immaculately landscaped gardens in which some colleges happen to be set. Meanwhile, policymakers should recognise that universities are not merely composed of students, buildings and staff: investment in parkland is a prerequisite for the visionary.