Background

Ontarians live in increasingly urban environments. This makes it more difficult for us to spend time in nature, which has negative effects on our health. For example, the rate of chronic illness, anxiety and mood disorders is on the rise. Nature could be part of the solution, especially in Ontario, where there is easy access to beautiful parks and other green spaces.

Healthy Parks Healthy People is a worldwide movement to promote the positive health benefits of nature. As part of this movement, Ontario Parks, part of the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, works to improve the health and wellness of Ontarians through nature.

Learn more about Healthy Parks Healthy People

About the consultation

In Fall 2019, we asked Ontarians to share feedback on how we can improve access to, and raise awareness of, the health benefits of being in nature.

We invited people to take part in the consultation, including:

  • researchers
  • health policy and advocacy groups
  • health practitioners
  • environmental organizations
  • Indigenous organizations
  • educational organizations
  • tourism organizations

In addition, we used a social media campaign to encourage the public to participate. We gathered input through an online questionnaire. Participants received a custom set of questions depending on what group they represented: health care provider, educator or member of the general public.

Participants

We received over 2,500 submissions from individuals, groups and organizations over the course of the consultation:

  • general public – 2075 submissions
  • researchers – 26 submissions
  • park or environmental organizations – 85 submissions
  • healthcare providers – 93 submissions
  • public health – 63 submissions
  • educators – 74 submissions
  • tourism sector – 31 submissions
  • other – 98 submissions

What we heard

Most participants already had a high awareness of the link between nature and health. There was also a very keen interest in the subject. Over 1,400 individuals and organizations wanted to stay engaged with Ontario Parks and the ministry about the Healthy Parks Healthy People movement.

When participants contributed to the consultation, they did not just speak about provincial parks. Their answers included mentions of a wide range of parks and green spaces from municipal, regional, provincial and national parks.

Below are the common themes we heard about in this consultation:

Support for the Healthy Parks Healthy People initiative

Most respondents believe that parks have a positive impact on human health. They indicated their support for programs and organizations that link parks and health.

Affordability

Affordability can be a barrier preventing some people from using parks and green space to improve their health.

Participants suggested incentives, such as:

  • coupons
  • free-days
  • discounted park entry
  • free or inexpensive gear rental
  • park prescriptions provided by health care practitioners

Transportation to parks

For some people, particularly those living in major urban centres, transportation is a barrier to visiting parks.

Participants expressed an interest in public transportation to parks, including urban, regional and provincial park destinations.

Others suggested special park shuttle services that would pick them up in the city or closest transit stop.

Accessibility for diverse audiences

Participants frequently mentioned accessibility as a barrier to visiting nature to benefit health.

This term meant different things depending on the participant. For example, some people cited the need for more accessible trails for:

  • seniors
  • people in wheelchairs
  • parents with strollers

Others felt that parks should be more easily available for people from different socio-economic backgrounds, such as people with a low income.

The need for more time

Many participants said they did not have enough free time in their life to go to parks and enjoy the health benefits because of work and family pressures.

Many of these people also expressed a desire to work less or have a four-day work week. Some suggested work places should better support being outside in green space through:

  • longer lunch hours
  • workplace design that incorporates nature
  • programming for employees

The need for more green space and continued protection of green space

Many participants raised concerns about the amount of green space in Ontario and whether that green space is adequately protected.

Participants were interested in all types of parks and green spaces. They wanted access to high quality green spaces in urban areas, close to where they live. Many suggested that urban planning and development permissions should include better provisions for parks.

There was also interest in a greater quantity of larger protected spaces, including provincial parks and conservation areas. Participants wanted assurances that regional and provincial parks would be protected over the long term, and biodiversity and ecology in parks would be maintained.

Continued investment in parks

Some participants worried that governments may not be effectively supporting parks, particularly conservation areas and provincial parks. Some expressed a desire to sustain funding and staff levels at parks, and that park facilities be maintained or upgraded.

More activities, events, organized programs and school programs

Many participants from the general public said they would be motivated to visit parks and green spaces if there were organized activities or events they could participate in. Some examples of activities include:

  • nature hikes
  • yoga in the park
  • forest therapy walks
  • special health events
  • wilderness skills education
  • park prescriptions

In addition, participants identified the need to incorporate using nature for health into school programs.

On-going communication about the health benefits of nature

Although many people and organizations were aware of the health benefits of nature, many felt that there was a continued need to broadly share those messages. Some suggestions include better online information, trail maps and information in other languages.

Health practitioners and other social welfare organizations were looking for specific resources or toolkits to help them communicate with their clientele.

Research

While there is a significant body of research showing the health benefits of parks, there are still gaps in understanding. Health practitioners noted that this research competes for attention with other health research.

Some of the gaps include:

  • the need for cost-benefit research
  • longer-term research studies
  • research that focuses on specific or marginalized populations

Participants also noted a need for funding to support health and parks research.

Trails

Some individuals and groups felt there was a need for good quality, well-maintained park facilities.

Trails were a focus in the topic of park infrastructure, with many participants expressing a desire for:

  • more trails
  • better maintained trails
  • a network of connected trails systems

Partnerships and cooperation

Many parks organizations, community groups and health organizations said they were already interested in or involved in promoting nature and health.

Many of these participants expressed a desire to create a network among these organizations. They would use this network to share information and promote and deliver health and nature programs.

Members of the general public said they want a single information source about parks, trails and healthy activities.

Safety

Feeling safe is an important consideration when visiting parks. Some participants mentioned feeling unsafe in urban parks, particularly when they were alone.

Other safety concerns in provincial parks include:

  • weather
  • bugs (such as ticks that can carry Lyme disease)
  • animals

Next steps

As a result of your feedback, we are developing a strategic plan that will guide the next steps of our Healthy Parks Healthy People program.

This strategic plan will outline new ideas for programs, partnerships and policies. As we develop this plan, we will reach out to participants who asked that we keep them informed or involved in the future of the Healthy Parks Healthy People policy development process.

Updated: July 15, 2021
Published: September 24, 2019