A large worldwide study found dramatic benefits for all people, especially children. Mother Nature for the win!

By Dan Nosowitz

Living near a protected area—some kind of open wilderness space—is a luxury in the United States. And there’s no shortage of small-scale studies about how spending time outdoors can improve your mental and physical well-being. But what about in a larger sense? Can living near a protected area have bigger effects?

Image courtesy of Getty.

A new study from Oregon State University looked at environmental and socioeconomic data of people who live near open spaces. It’s a huge, dumpster-full-of-data kind of study; 34 developing countries, 600 protected areas, 60,000 different households. This isn’t a study about how going for a hike can improve your sense of self; it’s about whether federally protected wilderness can be an economic and health benefit for people, especially children, in developing nations.

What the researchers found was that living close to a protected area—within 10 kilometers, or about 6.2 miles—is associated with some pretty dramatic improvements. They specifically define protected areas as those designed for conservation; think Yellowstone, not Central Park, although it’s worth noting that the greatest benefit came with “multiple-use” areas. Multiple-use areas are parks or open spaces that allow some regulated use by people, like sustainable foraging.

But a major difference came with those protected areas that become tourist destinations. With tourists comes money, and with money comes increased quality of life. (Not a fair system, but seems to be the way it works.) The researchers found that for those living near a tourist-heavy protected green space, wealth levels were 17 percent higher, and poverty levels 16 percent lower, than in otherwise similar households away from the orbit of the protected space.

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The marks for children are stark, too. Using height-for-age, which is a fairly standard way to gauge the nutritional health of children, the researchers found that children benefit a lot from proximity to protected areas. Children under five years old sported 10 percent higher height-for-age numbers when living near a protected area; stunted growth rates were 13 percent lower, as well.

In other words, living near a protected area seems to bring notable economic and health benefits. Does this mean we should protect more land? Does it mean you should try to move nearer to a national park? That does sound nice. Maybe so!

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