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

By Dan Nosowitz
April 05, 2019
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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?

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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.

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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