Can parks help lower health care costs? New efforts in Southeast Michigan say yes

Recent efforts across Southeast Michigan show that the region's parks provide major, measurable benefits to residents' well-being.
This article is part of Inside Our Outdoors, a series about Southeast Michigan's connected parks, greenways, and trails and how they affect residents' quality of life. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance.

Getting outdoors has long been linked to good health, but recent efforts across Southeast Michigan show that the region's parks provide major, measurable benefits to residents' well-being.

The growing connection between the region's parks and community health has been "astounding," especially since last year's COVID-19 lockdowns, according to Amy McMillan, director of the Huron-Clinton Metroparks. McMillan points to a recent economic study commissioned by the Metroparks and completed by The Trust for Public Land (TPL). Released last October, the study found that the 13-park system (serving Washtenaw, Macomb, Oakland, Livingston, and Wayne counties) generates over $90 million annually in economic benefits, and millions more in environmental and health benefits. 
A person bikes at Lake St. Clair Metropark.
Upon measuring the health care savings to residents who use the Metroparks, TPL determined that the Metroparks provide $62.3 million annually in recreation and health benefits. Physical activity in Metroparks also reduces health care costs: on average, adults save $1,250 per year. For adults over the age of 64, the savings are even greater, at $2,500 per year. 

"We wanted to be able to gather and analyze data and objectively report the outcomes of some of the work that we do that the public, in particular, might not be aware of," McMillan says. "For a long time people have inherently understood that parks were important, but the connection that people have to public spaces, especially since the pandemic, has really grown."

She stresses that there is more at play than just the fact that people are likely going to be significantly healthier if they spend time using public parks and trails. She says there's also a "virtuous cycle of savings" for communities. 

"If health care costs are lowered, that's savings for local businesses, and those savings to corporations ultimately benefit us all,'' McMillan says. "If your local government health care costs are lowered, then those are dollars that can be used in other places in their budget."
A person walks at Lake St. Clair Metropark.
Having compelling data points, in addition to millions of anecdotes relating to improved health and wellness, is significant for the Metroparks. Metroparks staff intend to use the study's findings to inform the park system's long-term goals. For instance, they've decided to direct more capital improvement dollars toward trail projects. 

"We're putting over a million dollars into improving our trails and the overall accessibility to our Metroparks," McMillan says. "Trails are so exceptionally important and [they] play a big role in helping people's health, as they are a driver to getting people out there."

Parks collaborate on community health improvement plan

To the north of the Metroparks system, parks are a key part of the Community Health Improvement Plan for St. Clair County (CHIP), which has been underway since 2019. The initiative is focused on bringing health considerations into policymaking across sectors to address health disparities and promote health equity in St. Clair County. Facilitated by the St. Clair County Metropolitan Planning Commission, CHIP is a collaborative effort of community partners working together to identify strategies to improve the health and quality of life of the county's nearly 160,000 residents. 

"A big part of what we're doing involves the idea of Health in All Policies, a national initiative that holds the approach that the types of agencies or sectors don't matter. Everyone contributes to the health and well-being of a community," says Annette Mercatante, medical health director for the St. Clair County Health Department. 

Mercatante stresses that only about 20% of health outcomes are actually related to health care or health care delivery, while 80% are a result of social determinants like the economy, education, environment, childhood trauma and relationships, and community engagement.

"If you consider the health aspects of what you're doing, it sort of changes the priorities of how you approach things," Mercatante says. "It's clear that parks and outdoor recreational areas are important. But there are also fiduciaries and other kinds of agencies that you wouldn't immediately consider when you think of health, and we all need to work together."

Mercatante says CHIP has been well-received, with support and participation coming from several volunteer organizations and public and private partners — including parks and recreation providers, area hospitals, the YMCA, and business community members. The collaborative approach, engaging diverse entities that aren't traditionally considered to be health-related, is groundbreaking for St. Clair County. CHIP is set to run until 2023.

Before COVID-19 derailed their plans, health department staff had intended to meet with all CHIP stakeholders, review how the agencies are moving forward with some of their objectives, and then publish a report.

"We're still hoping to do a report this year and get more outward-going conversation going before we launch a community health assessment in 2022," Mercatante says.

In relation to the county's parks, Mercatante says she's working with a growing network of people who are engaged in providing opportunities (such as park walking programs) for residents to reap the health benefits of these spaces. 

"We're talking about access for all, especially those who don't have access to a kayak or a car or a bike, and providing more opportunities for people who are living in poverty," she says. "It's the natural next step."

Building momentum

Since 2011, the Healthy Pontiac, We Can! (HPWC) coalition has been supporting and promoting initiatives, organizations, and events that improve quality of life in Pontiac. The group was formed by Oakland County's Health Division through a planning grant from the Michigan Department of Community Health's Building Healthy Communities program. The coalition includes health care professionals, local government leaders, public and mental health experts, human service agency workers, faith-based delegates, and residents. The group is focused on promoting access to healthier foods, tobacco-free living, and more active lifestyles.
A sign for the new "FitPark" at Pontiac's Oakland Park.
Buoying the role of parks in community health has been paramount. Jessica Williams, a public health educator for Oakland County and an HPWC coalition member, explains that although Pontiac has over 30 parks, not enough residents are aware of those resources.

Williams says the coalition has been working hard to get more residents engaged in area parks so they don't have to leave the city and are more readily able to pursue a healthier lifestyle. Past grant funding from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services allowed the group to do marketing via direct mailers, billboards, and social media ads. 

HPWC recently surveyed residents and discovered that 50% of the population had used a park in the last year. Additionally, 70% of respondents agreed that parks are a place that they go with their families – a 25% increase since HPWC's last survey in 2018.

"That shows the kind of momentum that we are building in trying to get people more active in the community," Williams says. "We'll continue to scan the community every three years because it allows us to hear what the residents need help with and helps us plan more strategically."
Recently installed fitness equipment at Pontiac's Oakland Park.
Some recent tangible efforts by coalition members have included the installation of adult fitness stations in Oakland Park and the opening of a disc golf course. In a recent meeting there was a lot of brainstorming about what can be done to help reduce blight in the city, particularly in Pontiac's parks. 

"We're building out a strategic plan that is just in the infancy stages right now," Williams says. "... The last year really played a role in helping us show our community that parks are safe and healthy places to be, and we plan to build on that."

Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at [email protected].

Photos by Steve Koss.