This study summarized the content of introduced and enacted park-related state legislation during 2001 to 2007, including legislation pertaining to preservation or conservation, funding, creation or acquisition, safety and liability, outdoor activities, outreach, and access. We found that 19% of park-related legislation had passed, reflecting a commitment by states to natural resources. Although the majority of park-related state legislation introduced had not passed, the proportion of park-related legislative policies that were enacted was in the same range as seen in other health-related legislative policy studies.8,9
Research on park-related legislation is fairly new, and more studies are needed to better understand why some legislation fails to be enacted.
In our study, 35% of legislation addressing preservation or conservation had passed. Preservation and conservation efforts primarily involved protecting land by preventing short-term purchases for investment purposes. Research suggests that preservation and conservation positively affects people’s willingness to visit natural settings,10
and legislative policies can be an effective way to reduce environmental and/or individual barriers associated with access. Indeed, a common co-element of preservation was increased connectivity to parks (e.g. through the addition or expansion of walking and biking paths occurring at park borders and nearby neighborhoods). Connectivity may help maximize the impact of parks and increase the number of adults who are physically active in parks.11
Of the bills related to funding, 23% were passed; enacted bills supported public funding of parks through tax support for operating expenses, impact fees, revenue bonds, and tax credits or deductions. Since public financing is an important element to sustainability of the natural environment,4
and funding for parks varies widely between states, more research tracking and analyzing state legislation funding mechanisms is needed. Increased funding support for parks would allow states to create and modernize the park infrastructure, provide a wider range of physical activity and leisure programming alternatives, and encourage physical and leisure activity in parks through public health messages.12
Of bills related to creation or acquisition of new land, 17% were passed. The creation or acquisition of new land is one approach to preserving open spaces and compensating for the pressures of urbanization and urban sprawl.13
Because community sprawl has been found to have negative effects on mental health and connections within and between social networks, there is a need to design communities that are not only safe but environmentally sustainable and aesthetically appealing.14
Planners, public health officials, and other key professional groups need to give high priority to creating and/or restoring parks and open spaces when designing communities.
Our findings suggest that policy-makers are spearheading efforts to make the natural environment more appealing by introducing park-related policies in the areas of safety and liability issues, outreach, outdoor activities, and accessibility. The inclusion of items in policy legislation to ensure that parks are safe (e.g. signage in parks to prevent accidents, banning of hand-guns among park visitors, posting of hours of operation) supports public health efforts to ensure safe and equitable opportunities for all community members to engage in physical activity. In fact, land management agencies that manage recreational areas have begun to partner with pubic health professionals in their efforts to prevent injury, illness, and property damage on public land.15
In our study, park-related legislative policies also covered outreach and outdoor activities, such as promoting more active lifestyles among youth. There is growing evidence in support of promoting outdoor play and reducing fear of crime to promote more outdoor physical activity.16
However, although parks might provide safe places to recreate, they also need to be accessible, especially for persons with disabilities or wheeled devices (e.g. strollers, carts, bikes).
The findings of this report are subject to limitations. First, we were not able to account for state legislation already in existence prior to the time period of this review; therefore, several bills and/or states may not be represented in this study. Second, these data only reflect reviewed state legislation obtained from two electronic sources, and it is possible that the search process did not capture all relevant legislation. Finally, policies implemented at local, regional, or federal levels might also be important to promoting physical health, but are not represented by this data. This topic is worth examining in future studies.