A Health-based Measure for Land Use and Parks Planning

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by Robby Layton, Ph.D.

This blog is part of a month-long series on Healthy Communities. Other blogs in this series include.

Create a Hub in Parks: Link Activities through Social Gathering Places by Axel Bishop.

8 Things City Planners Must Know to Improve Public Health by Robby Layton, Ph.D.

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Plans for parks and other public lands have historically been developed in an ad-hoc fashion. Attempts to prove that community land use plans would provide tangible public health benefits were based on anecdotal and circumstantial data.

As urban environments have been tied to significant public health challenges such as chronic diseases and obesity, though, elected officials are looking to city planners and recreation directors to contribute meaningfully innovative programs improve public health in American cities.

Thankfully a better approach to park and land use planning is emerging. Based on research completed at North Carolina State University (NCSU), a methodology has been developed, tested, and successfully implemented in metropolitan areas.

Park System Planning Aligned with Public Health Goals

Being outside is good for our health. Spending time in nature benefits physical health and emotional well-being. People use parks, green spaces and trail systems to recreate, relax, rejuvenate, and stay healthy.

Research from NCSU is allowing communities to measure benefits provided through parks. Here's how it works: Park amenities and recreational programs are ranked according to the likelihood they will promote activities that raise the basal metabolic rate (BMR). Activities that increase BMR are associated with lower risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic illnesses. They are then given an active energy expenditure (AEE) score.

Assessing parks and amenities and correlating their features to AEE values allows city planners to rank park systems. Parks can be ranked by metrics that indicate the potential number of people who visit a park and how frequently. The data can also be used to rank amenities and features that have the greatest potential to encourage people to stay longer at parks and enjoy more varied experiences.

By scoring parks on the AEE scale, proposed enhancements, redesigns, and additions can be evaluated on their potential to improve the public health issues most important to a community. Combining the AEE score with demographic analysis, and park quality and amenities assessments, park and program directors can justify recommendations and funding requests.

Planners can combine AEE values with park quality scores and other variables correlated with park use in a metric that indicates the relative potential for people to visit a park more frequently, stay longer, and enjoy a richer park experience, all of which contribute to a higher “dose” of healthy park exposure. The metrics for all parks in a community are then compiled to create a map depicting the dosage available at any location within the city’s geography. 

The results will show which steps must be taken to increase the value of park systems as a public health resource. Steps commonly taken by communities include:

  • Adding or upgrading amenities where the use is low but need is high.
  • Improving aesthetics to make parks. Increases in frequency, duration, and intensity of visits can often be achieved by making parks more appealing with minor upgrades
  • Adding new features or replacing old ones.
  • Adding new parks is the best solution when the analysis reveals significant gaps are discovered.

Sample Active Energy Expenditure Rates


Active Energy Expenditure Rating: 2


Active Energy Expenditure Rating: 3


Dog Park

Active Energy Expenditure Rating: 1

Rectangle Athletic Field

Active Energy Expenditure Rating: 3

Additional Resources

How Cities Use Parks to Improve Public Health by the American Planning Association 

Cost Analysis for Improving Park Facilities to Promote Park-based Physical Activity by NC State Extension Publications

Health Benefits from Nature Experiences Depend on Dose by Danielle F. Shanahan et al.