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In 1854, Henry David Thoreau penned in his book “Walden,” “We need the tonic of wildness…we can never have enough of nature.” He believed that human vitality hinged on having a connection to the natural world.
One hundred sixty-two years later, a pilot program in the Park Research Lab at the College of William & Mary stands in agreement.
The prescription park program, known as ParkRx, an initiative dedicated to using nature and public lands to improve individual and community health, has been surveying 41 parks in Williamsburg, and James City and Upper York Counties. It’s spearheaded by program director Dorothy Ibes, Ph.D.
“We have examined park amenities, basketball courts, picnic tables, drinking fountains, picnic tables, accessibility options, safety features like lighting and environmental factors—forests, water and open green space,” says Ibes.
Ibes encountered ParkRx when her sister sent her an article about the Washington, D.C., program a few summer’s ago. Amazed at what she saw, Ibes contacted the program director, Robert Dr. Zarr, a physician at Unity Health Care in Washington, D.C., and met with him to learn how to start a program in Williamsburg.
After securing grant money to fund the project with the help of William & Mary, which involved two years of laying groundwork, she launched the pilot program in the summer of 2015.
Still in its infancy, the prescription park program has been proactive in advocating the benefits of taking time out to escape into the natural world.
According to a study by the Proceeding of the National Academy of Science, a 90-minute walk through nature was found to be vital for mental health. With many Americans now urbanizing, a lack of access to nature and green spaces has been associated with increased levels of mental illness, including anxiety disorders and depression.
This is why a core part of the ParkRX initiative includes outreach to physicians and health care providers to introduce these benefits to their patients with the hope that they get out and visit one or more of the 41 parks that have been surveyed by Ibes and her team.
It’s a task Ibes knows isn’t easy, given that physicians need to see patients more rapidly these days, which is why she created a database within the ParkRX website. Healthcare providers just enter a patient’s address and then search for parks based on features beneficial to their patient.
“It only takes three to five minutes to prescribe a park to a patient, but even that in our current medical system can be a lot of time,” says Ibes.
When she offers training sessions to the health care providers, Ibes discloses the research behind the program along with the mental and physical health benefits of spending time outdoors. She also demonstrates how to prescribe a park to a patient and instructs doctors on how to use website.
These newly-minted Park Ambassadors, as they are called, are given Safety in the Parks brochures, prescription forms with directives for their park activity, double-sided one-page PDF park information pages that include a map, directions to the park, type of environment the park is, photos of the park, hours of operation and a list of the park’s features.
To date, Ibes has trained healthcare providers at Sentara, at Pediatric Associates of Williamsburg, several area counselors, and people at the William & Mary Campus Student Health Center and Counseling Center.
Amanda Deverich, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Williamsburg Family Counseling, is an advocate of the program and received training from Ibes. Deverich described the program as “organized, informative, and easy to use.” She now prescribes parks to her patients.
“I think the program is one of many tools in a health professional’s toolbox to improve the well-being of a client,” says Deverich. “I have suggested meditative hikes and journaling alone out in the woods. ParkPx is also a great quality time activity to prescribe for my couples who are trying to reconnect.”
While the initiative aims to benefit the community at-large, its focus centers on those who have trouble accessing the outdoors, who need to get outside to improve their health, or who have conditions that exercise and amenities at a public park could help them to better manage or overcome.
By making an appointment with a participating health care provider, you can have a park prescribed specific to your needs. A prescription is not required for you to escape and enjoy fresh air, it simply adds a layer of accountability on your journey to better health. A complete list of recommended parks is available on the ParkRX website.
Helping Ibes champion the message of ecotherapy are students who share her dedication to educating their peers on the health benefits of spending quality time outdoors. She has trained a total of seven students, who are referred to as Peer Park Ambassadors, and their job is like that of the physicians: to encourage fellow students to take time out of their schedules to get outdoors for the benefit of their mental and physical well-being.
“It’s hard to convince them to take time out for themselves,” says Ibes. “But getting outdoors enhances mood, concentration, learning, sociability and memory—all things important to our student population.”
Ibes says she positions a ParkRx table in first floor lobby of the Swem Library during some of the more stressful times of the academic year with the hope of providing students relief.
“We have scheduled [a table] next semester for suicide prevention, for finals week and midterms. Any high stress time we encourage students to get outside,” Ibes says.
While some students need the extra nudge to get outdoors, Annabel McSpadden isn’t one of those. A junior carrying a psychology and English double major with hopes of pursuing a career in social work, McSpadden found out about the program through her academic advisor. It really resonated with her.
“My advisor told me about this program where they were studying the mental health effects of green space. That was right up my alley since I backpack every summer. I immediately opened up my laptop and applied for the program,” she says.
An avid hiker who loves the outdoors, McSpadden—now one of Ibes’ Peer Park Ambassadors—enjoys hiking the Appalachian Trail with friends, something she has done for the past two summers. She praises Ibes’ leadership and vision for making ecotherapy something that the community should be aware of and participate in to create better health outcomes. She credits her participation in the prescription park program for expanding her perspective on it.
“When I first started the program, I thought it was something just for the present. Now that I’m more familiar with it, if I become a licensed clinical social worker, I can implement these treatments with my patients,” she says.
McSpadden says the program has deepened her commitment to spend time outdoors and she encourage those she loves to do the same.
“I’ve combed through article after article about how people are helped by going outside. It’s a part of my lifestyle and I’m now making sure that my friends and family get time outdoors,” she says.
McSpadden’s attitude and mental shift about enjoying the outdoors is what Ibes hopes others will do at any one of the 41 parks in the greater Williamsburg area.
For Ibes, improving mental and physical health by encouraging people to step outdoors is the start of changing a culture. She says for Americans who find themselves more situationally depressed and gripped with anxiety—conditions rapidly improved by a simple walk around the neighborhood or outside of the office.
“It is my hope that people will want to get out to these public spaces and spend less time in front of their electronic devices,” says Ibes. “Time outdoors is linked to lower rates of anxiety, depression, fatigue, chronic health diseases and heart conditions. Even five minutes outside helps.”
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