All Posts (85)

  • Urban

    Race and the Great Outdoors

    Here at the Institute, we’ve been reading UC Berkeley professor Carolyn Finney’s new book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. In it, Finney explores how the environment and nature became racialized concepts in the United States, partly by delving into the history of slavery and Jim Crow laws. She also challenges media representations of how Americans of color connect to open space and adds complexity to the (prevailingly white) cultural narratives that we use to define and claim outdoor experiences for ourselves and others. The so-called “white spaces” of American national parklands are past due for some change.

    Dr. Finney’s work is exciting not just because Black Faces, White Spaces is beautifully written and thought-provoking, but because it’s part of a larger discussion about making parks more relevant to a broader diversity of people. Initiatives in the National Park Service, private industry, and environmental non-profits are all beginning efforts to see public lands in new ways so we can use them more inclusively. For example, check out the line-up of the new Diverse Environmental Leaders (DEL) National Speakers Bureau, intended to “provide knowledgeable, articulate and experienced experts of color to build broad community support for the protection of our public lands through relevancy, diversity and inclusion.” (DEL website) "Every member has individually done some seriously inspiring environmental work, so we can expect this newly-launched group to have a major impact.

    The Institute’s Urban program has some related efforts of its own. This year, we’re researching and analyzing outreach strategies at the Crissy Field Center here in the Golden Gate National Parks and the SAMO Youth program in Santa Monica National Recreation Area. These powerful projects have shaped themselves around the needs of youth in nearby, underserved communities—multi-ethnic ones in San Francisco and chiefly Latino ones in Los Angeles. As a result, they not only provide job training, safe places to be after school, and financial help in the form of a stipend, they create enduring bonds between communities of color and national parkland. We’re excited to share their programmatic successes and the learning experiences they’ve had along the way.

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  • Physical Activity Through Fun

    When we got to East Bay Regional Park District’s (EBRPD) Crab Cove, it was hot, and we were late. Naturalists were teaching participants how to use compasses—real compasses—and real maps, hand-drawn on paper, with lines showing magnetic and true north. They did not come with Siri’s reassuring voice. I felt a little panicked thinking that this was not entertaining enough for the patients who had taken their day off to come into nature with us. My own children sat down and announced they were not participating.

    UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland (CHO) Primary Care Center has partnered with EBRPD to take our patients into nature by offering a monthly shuttle from our clinic to a local park. Doctors and their families, as well as EBRPD staff, join patients and their families on these monthly outings.

    Our goal is to increase opportunities for physical activity while having fun. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states children should enjoy 60 minutes of physical activity a day, at least 5 days a week, and most of it should be aerobic. That means we should be getting aerobic activity—such as brisk walking—everyday; and three times a week, this should be a vigorous activity, such as running. Adults need 75 minutes of jogging or running every week and muscle-strengthening activities two or more days a week.

    This may sound hard to achieve. Yet, research shows that simply being outside leads to increased physical activity. Children are two to three times more physically active outdoors than indoors. For every hour children are outside, they spend about 27 minutes of it in activity. Exercise in natural setting has added emotional and mental health benefits: for example, improved attention span, as well as improved feelings of serenity, energy, happiness.

    Children tend to engage in “active play” outdoors when they

    have access to a variety of landscapes—“hardscapes” such as asphalt as well as natural landscapes. Play in outdoor settings with natural elements, such as a hiking trail or boulder-size rocks, has been shown to have added benefits of improved motor strength, balance, and coordination for children. A variety of landscapes may engage a wider variety of personalities or temperaments of children in physical activity. More imaginative children may be more engaged in natural settings.

    As I felt my own mental resistance to figuring out the compass, I worried that this activity was not active enough to achieve our goal—I was wrong.  

    Once we learned how to use compasses, the families were split into groups and came up with their own team names: Team Confused, Team Larry, Team Gooze, and Team Marbin. Most groups ran off in the wrong direction. Team Marbin, led by CHO’s own Dr. Jyothi Marbin and her husband Seth, realized everyone else’s error and stealthily headed in the other way. By the time others realized, the Marbins were way ahead of the rest.

    And then it was on!

    As we followed our compasses towards the site where the last flag appeared to be, each team running to catch up with the Marbins, we saw that the Marbins (now joined by members of team Gooze) had veered just slightly to the right of the correct path. Team Confused quietly ran in the direction of the flag while trying not to be seen. They saw it at the same time as the Marbins, and although members of the Marbins and Gooze ran as quickly as they could to the flag, Team Confused touched it first. Team Larry arrived seconds after.

    In the end, Marbins, Confused, and Gooze happily shared the glory.

    A quiet calm came over the well-exercised children and adults as we walked back to the Crab Cove visitor’s center to watch some fish-feeding. That is, until doctors and patients, children and adults, burst into a fierce game of banana tag.

    I can’t tell you exactly how many minutes of physical activity we got that day. But I can tell you that no family was going to be left behind. And, my total pedometer steps in that 2 hour excursion: 6,000.

    With that, I hope to see you in the parks!

    Nooshin Razani, MD MPH. Nooshin is a pediatrician and Nature Champion trained by the National Environmental Education Foundation to prescribe nature for health. She is currently Senior Health Fellow at the Institute at the Golden Gate.

    with Kelley Meade, MD. Dr. Meade is a pediatrician and Associate Director of the Primary Care Clinic at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. The shuttle project is part of her healthcare leadership fellowship at the Center For Health Professions sponsored by the California Healthcare Foundation.

    Photos by Nooshin Razani and Mona Koh of EBRPD.

    Many thanks to East Bay Regional Parks Foundation for sponsoring the outings, and to the Institute at the Golden Gate for donating water bottles and pedometers.


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  • Last Thursday, Institute staff and Healthy Parks Healthy People: Bay Area (HPHP: Bay Area) champions made the trek to Microsoft’s offices in Mountain View to attend a “Collaboration for Great Impact” workshop. We joined our friends who have been working on environmental and climate change initiatives to reflect on the Collective Impact model’s role in our own work with HPHP: Bay Area. Pioneered by the social impact consultants, FSG, Collective Impact is a framework to align the work of different organizations into a single goal. Briefly, the five pillars of Collective Impact are: (1) a common agenda, (2) shared measurement, (3) mutually reinforcing activities, (4) continuous communication, and (5) backbone support.

    When the HPHP: Bay Area program started in 2012, the Institute was under no illusions that this would be anything but a seriously complicated endeavor. Not only were we asking for help to create more public programming in the park, but we were asking the collective Bay Area to see nature and parks through the lens of wellness. In working with physicians to prescribe nature and encouraging parks to pave more trails in underserved communities, we have been making small steps towards a change in the broader culture of health, wellness, and parks.

    Thankfully, we at the Institute are not doing this alone. Through the years, the HPHP: Bay Area program has cultivated a group of  organizations and advocates that is engaged in bridging public health and public parks. As we continue to roll out the HPHP: Bay Area programming and bring more healthcare advocates to the fold, this workshop was a time for us to think critically about the future of HPHP: Bay Area through the lens of Collective Impact and its five pillars of success. Often, we are so wrapped up in the day-to-day operations that it is hard to find the time to reflect and learn from our past efforts.

    During the workshop we participated in an exercise that had us imagine what HPHP: Bay Area would look like in 2025 and what would be telltale signs of its success. One partner answered that all awareness campaigns about the significant linkages between nature and wellness are obsolete because communities in 2025 will see that as blatantly obvious. Another partner highlighted the potential lessening of chronic diseases in 2025 as a measurement of success. Working backwards from these visions for the future, our group looked at potential steps we could take in the next month or year to make these goals a possibility. We listed different sectors we wanted to bring into the world of HPHP: Bay Area, as well as plans to create ongoing communication and dialogue within the group. We are still digesting all of the different ideas related to the five pillars that we came up with and will be eager to share them with you soon!

    The year 2025 might be over a decade away, but we at HPHP: Bay Area know that change does not happen all at once. We are amplifying our efforts today in order to make sure that communities in 2025 have the motive, means, and opportunities to visit parks and increase wellness.


    Special thanks to our friends at ChangeScale for hosting such a great event!

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  • Urban parks create opportunities for community intervention and social interaction, which allows for the transfer of social capital. As social beings, humans require interactions with others and what better place to be amongst friends and soon–to-be friends than an urban park! A question that I have grappled with throughout my research as a health consultant at the Institute at the Golden gate is--how do we create positive interactions within these immensely important spaces? Parks can be both loved and feared places depending on how the space is being used.  

    Through my previous work as a park ranger and environmental educator I have seen first-hand what green space can do for people from all walks of life. Now, at the Institute I am able to dig a little deeper on the important connection between parks and social cohesion. The great landscape architect, Fredrick Law Olmstead, designed both Central Park and Prospect Park with the grand notion of vast open plazas built for social interaction. The ultimate melting ground—parks—offer an opportunity for tremendous information sharing and knowledge. The great opportunity of parks as a place for social cohesion also proposes a potential problem; parks are not always a safe place. As a UC Berkeley masters student studying city planning, I have often looked to Jane Jacobs, a journalist, author and activist known for her fight against urban renewal. Jacobs proposes more eyes on the street—meaning taking ownership of your community.

    One of the most successful community based projects is the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. Tired of disinvestment, neglect and redlining practices, members of the Roxbury/North Dorchester neighborhood of Boston established the coalition in 1984. The initiative accomplished so many wonderful things including convincing the government of Boston to grant the power of eminent domain over 60 acres of abandoned land called the Dudley Triangle. Another important success story was turning three urban parks in this neighborhood, once used as a primary instrument for drug trade, into positive coalition driven public space.

    The opportunity is the nexus between city planning and health- which the Institute at the Golden Gate strives to answer with both Park Prescriptions and Healthy Parks, Healthy People. The built environment can influence all aspects of a person’s life from education, job opportunities, physical fitness, food offerings, and overall life span. Parks provide a tremendous opportunity for connection amongst a growing diversity of people in urban areas. Much of the existing research has focused on connections between social cohesion and health but many studies have not included how parks can influence social cohesion. The Institute will be digging further into these important links and I look forward to sharing this research and work.  


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  • Healing by Being Together in Nature


    UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland (CHO) Primary Care Clinic has partnered with the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) to bring families to nature for health. The result has been, in a word, magical. Through the generosity of the Regional Parks Foundation, a Nature Shuttle takes patients, their families, and accompanying clinic staff to a variety of East Bay Regional Parks on the first Saturday of each month. The first two trips have been to Healthy Parks Healthy People programming at Crab Cove Visitor Center at Crown Memorial State Beach on the Alameda Shoreline where we were greeted by a naturalist, participated in guided activities exploring the outdoors, and have enjoyed a meal together.

    Nature prescriptions

    One family was recruited to the Nature Shuttle during a busy clinic morning when a single mother and two toddlers had come in for vaccines and asthma. During the course of the visit, the doctor learned that the family was struggling with housing. Among other more urgent topics, the provider was able to suggest this specific nature activity as a way to relax and recuperate. Once at the tide pools, with her boots covered in mud, this mother said: “This is my last pair of shoes.” She laughed and said that she had to wait until next month to have enough funds to buy a replacement pair, but that it was worth it.

    We are a Federally Qualified Health Center, so a large portion of our patients live below the poverty line. Many lack basic resources such as food, house stability, transportation and child care. Poverty has profound effects on health. Over the course of life, the increased health risks associated with poverty have a cumulative impact of 14 years of difference in life expectancy. It also happens that people with the lowest resources, highest health needs, are often those with the least access to nature.

    We look to nature to help our patients become resilient. We believe nature has the potential to heal because it buffers stress. When people have trees and vegetation around them, they have lower blood pressure, better emotional control, and improved attention and cognition. In larger population studies, green environments reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and increase the sense of well-being and longevity. Children living in more green environments have been shown to have more resilience against stressful life events such as family strife, divorce, and bullying. Associations with improved mental health and access to nature are even more profound for people living in poverty.

    We also look to nature to help families spend quality time with each other. The best conditions to reduce childhood stress are those where young people can feel safe and connected to others and to the world around them; spending time with a loving adults builds resilience in children. Opportunities for quality time increase when families are outdoors. We have observed many distraction-free moments of quiet, tenderness, and laughter between parents, grandparents, and siblings in nature.

    We refer patients to the nature shuttle to increase physical activity, but also to help with stress relief and social isolation.

    I want to stay here forever

    “I want to stay here forever,” said an 11-year-old girl at the end of one of our trips. Her exclamation surprised us as she had been completely silent through out the excursion. For the most part, she helped her parents care for three younger siblings, quietly accompanying them around the tide pools, pond and the Crab Cove Visitor Center. She maintained a vigorous grasp on an adult’s hand as we followed a naturalist out into the muddy tide pools to search for crabs, worms and bat rays. Her sequined pink sneakers were covered in mud, and after a few minutes she turned around and quietly went back to the shore.

     Partnering with children such as this young girl and families to get outdoors has taught us not to make assumptions about how children feel about or experience nature. One young boy jumped into the dirt almost head first, elated, running back and forth to the group to announce his latest discovery such as Mermaid’s Hair Seaweed. One family group spanned three generations, including a teenager wearing headphones. Despite this teen’s cool demeanor, she was just as engaged as her elders when we saw baby ducks. Another boy separated from the group; staying on shore. When we returned from the tide pools we discovered that he had been completely engrossed in finding crabs of different sizes. Filled with pride, he held up his hand which was filled with several little crabs. The toddlers in the group often struggle to sit still, but come to life when allowed simply to run.

    Fun looks different depending on a child’s developmental stage. Young children ages zero to five learn, explore, engage and get active through play. Play is best when spontaneous and self directed. Natural environments that are enriched – that is, with natural elements such as sticks, rocks, and streams – foster healthy development and invite young children to explore while gaining physical skills and coordination. With the little ones, we are often reassuring and encourage parents to find a safe outdoor space and to give their preschooler unstructured time to discover and play. Elementary aged children, on the other hand, enjoy being outside with their parents or friends. To engage an adolescent, it is important to listen to her ideas on where to go and what to do in the outdoors.

    Getting kids to nature is not always easy on the adults 

    The parents on our trips work hard to give their children this opportunity. A half-day excursion into the outdoors takes time, access to nature, and money for supplies, meals, transportation, and childcare. For many people these are formidable challenges. The shuttle leaves from our clinic on the first Saturday of each month. Getting to our clinic poses it’s own challenges: one couple with four children had taken three buses to get there and were running to get to our clinic, as one of their buses was delayed. One grandmother had hailed a taxi when her connecting bus failed to show up. Another mother arrived early so her children could take a nap and catch up on sleep before the trip. Another family of four children had spent two hours on a bus to get to our shuttle. We are humbled by our families’ determination to explore with us.

    But, as is the magic of nature, the barriers between families fall when we are outdoors. Families and staff help each other out. On the bus ride over, several of the mothers traded information on housing options. A naturalist held one mother’s toddler for much of the day so she could tend to another child. The formalities between doctor and patients also drop; one doctor ran and ran with a two year old across a grassy lawn until they both sat down, smiling, and finally tired. The physicians had the opportunity to talk with families in a way that they would never have the opportunity to do otherwise. As social isolation is a true public health issue, the potential for community building in these trips is profound.

    When we say nature, we mean community

    What is it exactly about being outdoors that heals us and heals children? Science tells us the health benefits of nature include physical activity, stress relief, and social contact. Our experience tells us nature is about having fun with friends, family, and community. Being in nature is also about expanding our definition of community. For a child, attaching to the place where they live, and to the plants and animals that share this space with them also has the potential to help them feel connected. Reducing stress and being connected to loving adult and community helps kids become resilient.

    Parks remain an invaluable resource for free and local opportunities to experience nature. Thank you, East Bay Regional Park District for being an amazing collaborator and for caring for our parks. Thank you to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital for believing in nature. Thank you to parents and caregivers for exploring. Thank you to all the naturalists, environmental educators, and guardians of our nation’s natural resources. You are public health in action.

    We would like to recognize Carol Johnson, Elizabeth Carmody, Sharon Nelson-Embry, Yogi Francis, Pat Chase, Kelley Meade, Christine Schudel, Kelvin Dunn, Curtis Chan, and Kristin Wheeler for helping to create this vision.

    Children's Hospital Oakland Health Educator Christine Schudel, Dr. Razani, Dr. Long, and Dr. Chase gather with families at Crab Cove East Bay Regional Park.

    About the Authors

    Dr. Dayna Long is a staff pediatrician at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland (CHO) where she co-directs the Family Information and Navigation Desk (FIND). She has been a dedicated Nature Champion at CHO and currently collaborates with EBRPD to integrate nature into clinical care in a program called FIND Nature! Dr. Long also serves as Medical Director for the Asthma Clinic where she and her team run an annual camp for children with asthma to spend a week in nature called "Camp Breath Easy."

    Dr. Nooshin Razani is a pediatrician practicing at the Silva Clinic in Hayward and UCSF Benioff CHO. She was trained as a "Nature Champion" by the National Environmental Education Foundation in 2010 and serves as the lead medical Senior Fellow to the Institute at the Golden Gate. She is thrilled at this opportunity to share her love for nature with families through a collaboration with the FIND Nature! team at Children's Hospital Oakland and EBRPD.

    Photos by Nooshin Razani and Elizabeth Carmody

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  • Last November, over 140 professionals representing parks and public lands, education, communication, academia, and advocacy came together  to explore ways that we can engage new audiences and move people to take action on climate change at our Parks: The New Climate Classroom conference.

    With a broad range of experience in the room, the conversation touched on a variety of best practices, case studies, and current research around designing education programs that empower, rather than overwhelm, audiences. Following the conference we heard from many of the participants that while the breadth and depth of the content was thought provoking and inspiring, at times it was also challenging to see the direct link between such a broad range of concepts and the on the ground work of educators and communicators.

    To address this challenge and to make the main concepts from the conference available to all, the Institute is pleased to announce the publication of our latest report Insights for Climate Change Communication & Education. This report captures the main themes, lessons, and resources that emerged from Parks: The New Climate Classroom. We hope that this newest report will be a useful tool for our partners and beyond as they continue to innovate and design effective, impactful climate change communication and education programs.

    We would love to hear your thoughts on this report and encourage you to share your experiences in designing and implementing climate change programs. Have you experimented with any of the practices from the conference? Do you have your own strategies that you would recommend? Feel free to share your thoughts below or contact with us via email, Facebook, or Twitter – use #teachclimate to connect!

    Additionally a big thank you goes from the Institute team to all who participated in Parks: The New Climate Classroom. In particular, we want to recognize Julia Townsend, who not only shared her own experiences with those of us at the conference but who also joined our team to author this report.

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  • Parks exist to enhance and add value to our lives. From the economic boost they give to cities to the social interactions they help facilitate, we may sometimes take the uncounted benefits of parks for granted. 

    The Healthy Parks Healthy People: Bay Area (HPHP: Bay Area) initiative positions parks as health resources for the whole family—especially those in the highest health need communities. This movement is engaging and creating a whole new group of lifelong park users who will help ensure a future for our parks and public lands for generations to come, while improving their own health at the same time.

    In the last year alone, over 35 park sites throughout the Bay Area have offered Healthy Parks, Healthy People programming on the first Saturday of every month—engaging hundreds of new park users. Parks and health agencies are working together to guarantee that park facilities and programs encourage physical activity, foster social connections, and extend a warm welcome to new visitors.

    Park and healthcare providers hope that this regional initiative can be a catalyst for broad policy change that advances the adoption of measurable recreational models to support the delivery of healthcare to improve the physical and mental health of our population. In the next year we hope to reach an even wider audience and begin to create lifelong park users who will improve the health of our communities and our planet.

    The next time you find yourself overwhelmed by work or stressed out from the daily to-do’s, make the time to go for a walk in your park. We guarantee you'll feel better once you do. The HPHP: Bay Area collaborative is continuing to welcome new and returning park users each month and we hope to see you out there soon. For more information on the collaborative and to find a program near you click here.

    See you in the parks!

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  • San Francisco took a huge stride forward last month by committing to fully adopting Park Prescriptions throughout their public health system. The estimated 30% of San Franciscans who use some form of public health service will be "prescribed" time outside in one of the city’s local, national, or state parks. The program is being implemented by the Department of Public Health in partnership with San Francisco Recreation and Parks and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and represents the first time in the world that an entire city has taken steps to fully implement Park Prescriptions.

    Thanks to the leadership of San Francisco’s park agencies, patients are able to fill their prescription at one of the specially designed Healthy Parks, Healthy People programs. Patients are met by a park staff member and led on an introductory walk to get them familiar with the features of the park while getting physically active and improving their overall wellbeing.

    The first Park Prescription program in San Francisco was piloted at the Southeast Health Center in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood. The Kaiser Permanente funded pilot was led by the Institute and championed in clinic by Dr. Nooshin Razani and Dr. Jamal Harris. The lessons learned from this pilot and many others in the Bay Area and across the country will help guide the implementation and long-term plan for the program throughout San Francisco.

    See you in the parks...Doctor's orders!

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  • There is growing consensus that nature has many health benefits, from increased physical activity to mental, emotional, and community health benefits. At the Institute we have brought this concept to implementation on a local, regional, and national scale. Recently our local Park Prescriptions pilot in the Bayview Hunters Point community in San Francisco was highlighted in the National Parks Magazine, produced quarterly by the National Parks Conservation Association. The article, A Prescription For Nature, was written by Dr. Daphne Miller - a partner and early advocate of the Healthy Parks, Healthy People movement. 

    The pilot program has made significant strides since its inception in summer 2012. This opportunity, funded by a Community Benefit grant from Kaiser Permanente, allowed us to take lessons learned and existing promising practices from around the country and adapt them to fit the unique needs of the Bayview Hunters Point community. After successfully training the staff of the Southeast Health Center and implementing park prescriptions in the clinic we will be continuing to elevate the important message of spending time outside to improve your health by training community leaders this summer. The community docents will have the knowledge and resources to be ambassadors for the parks and will help bring new audiences to participate in Healthy Parks, Healthy People programs in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood.

    Stay tuned for stories and images from this summer's community docent program. Until then, see you in the parks!

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  • Finding Inspiration from Youth Leaders

    Last Wednesday, the Institute team got an inspiring look at the Project WISE program, a partnership between the Crissy Field Center, the Urban Watershed Project, and Galileo Academy of Science and Technology that gets high school students out of the classroom and, literally, into the field. Throughout the school year, students from two environmental science classes at Galileo spend one afternoon a week conducting field studies around the Presidio and beyond.

    The program culminates in a series of evening presentations, where the youth strut their stuff. They showed us what they’ve learned about the scientific process, how science can impact our communities and inform our behaviors, how people are impacting and impacted by our environment, and what we can all do to become more responsible environmental and community stewards. It was an evening full of inspiring presentations and impressive youth.

    The individual projects ranged from looking at plastics in our beaches and oceans to bacteria in our burgers to smoothies made from a bicycle powered blender. The students picked issues that were near and dear to their hearts and communities, designed compelling experiments, and presented not only the results but also what they tell us about how we can shift our behaviors to better serve the environment and ourselves.

    The Institute team wants to congratulate the youth presenters on this amazing and inspiring evening and to extend a shout out to the partners that made this happen. Because of the hard work of the students, partners, and their amazing success, next year the program will expand to 120 students – doubling the number of participants from this year. We can’t wait to see this program continue to grow and flourish!

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  • A Dose of Nature for a Happier, Healthier Life

    If you were to perform a simple online search using the key words "mental health benefits of nature" you would be met with over 62 million hits, many of them news articles touting the endless benefits that green space has on our mental wellbeing. Additionally you can now find an abundance of resources from around the world focused on improving the mental health of of youth, refugees, veterans, and urbanites.

    Mental wellbeing is quickly becoming a major public health issue. In 2011 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the use of antidepressants in the United States had increased nearly 400% in the last two decades alone. As the world becomes a more urbanized and complex place, we have to start asking ourselves just how important our green spaces are to us.

    Just last week The Guardian published an article titled "Why green is good for you" and pointed to a study that tracked the mental health of a 1,000 people - half had moved to an area with higher rates of green space and half who moved to an area with less green space. As predicted the group who moved to an area with more abundant green spaces had an immediate improvement in their mental health. The most striking outcome was the improvement in mental health that was still present three years later.

    It's been ten years since the term "nature deficit disorder" has entered our vocabulary. From forest bathing in Japan, to refugee walking programs in Australia, to the rise of park prescription programs throughout the United States, it's clear that we're making strides to improve the health and wellbeing of our population.

    You don't need to plan your retirement to a cabin in the woods just yet to reap the mental benefits of nature. Taking the path that winds through the park on your way to school, ditching your couch for the shade of a tree to read the newspaper, or playing on the local playground with your kids are all good ways to become happier, and thus feel better. It doesn't take a lot but it does take a little.

    We'll see you in the parks.

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  • Raise a Glass to 2013!

    The past year has been a remarkable one for the Institute at the Golden Gate. We started 2013 with a list of ambitious goals focused on one key mission: making parks and public lands part of the solution to some of society’s biggest challenges. We’re thrilled to report that 2013 was probably our most successful year yet! Here are some of the highlights.

    Our food program marked a milestone achievement with the announcement by the National Park Service in June that it was adopting new food policies that will affect tens of millions of meals served in national parks each year. This exciting new development was the culmination of three years of work by the Institute to inspire and help co-design a new food policy for parks across the country. More widely, it shows how parks and public lands can be part of the wider movement toward a more sustainable food system.

    In 2013, the Institute also co-hosted the first national summit on sustainable food service with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, convening food industry leaders from parks, hospitals, schools, retail outlets, and museums to design collaborative sustainable food solutions at scale. Galvanized by these successes, we’re now planning the next stage of our food work, including projects regionally and nationally, as well as initiatives right here in the Bay Area. 

    Over the past year, the Institute's Health program has worked to strengthen the role that parks and public lands can play in preventive healthcare. Locally, health and park agencies united to provide over 100 culturally relevant, introductory, and free programs in dozens of parks in all nine counties of the Bay Area. 

    At the national level, the Institute co-hosted a workshop in Houston, Texas, to strengthen and scale-up the park prescriptions movement. Globally, we are participating in an international Healthy Parks Healthy People task force to elevate the role parks and public lands play in making our populations healthier. With support from donors like Kaiser Permanente and the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the pilot programs we’re testing in our own backyard—such as the Bayview Hunters Point park prescriptions program—are helping to create best practice guidelines that are now supporting activities across the United States and beyond.

    Meanwhile, our climate education program focused on the role parks can and should play in informing, educating, and empowering the public on critical challenges such as climate change. In May 2013, we released a well-received report that identified more than a dozen examples of innovative and high-impact educational programming in parks around the world.

    Following this publication, we hosted a dynamic conference in November, with more than 140 people from as far afield as Australia gathered in Sausalito, California, to brainstorm about the role our beloved parks can play in educating and empowering people on climate change. The event attracted experts and innovators not just from our country’s parks, but from many other sectors engaged in ground-breaking educational programs, including leaders from schools and universities, museums, the media, and Silicon Valley—as well as youth activists and well-known authors like Jonah Sachs and Mark Hertsgaard. With generous support from groups like the Ayrshire Foundation, we plan on taking our work to the next level in 2014. 

    Closer to home, the Institute continued its work welcoming environmental and government groups to hold their meetings at beautiful Fort Baker. By offering discounted bookings for overnight guests and meeting space in conjunction with Cavallo Point–the Lodge at the Golden Gate, the Institute helped more than 1,200 professionals hold their meetings in 2013 at this inspiring and affordable venue overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Some of the many environmental friends and colleagues that took advantage of this opportunity were the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, Student Conservation Association, Institute for the Future, and WildAid.

    Fort Baker

    Building on the momentum of 2013, we’re already ramping up for an exhilarating and eventful 2014. Thank you for your continued support and best wishes to all for a happy and healthy New Year!

    Chris Spence
    Director, Institute at the Golden Gate

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  • Connecting at Cavallo Point

    The Institute was delighted to welcome the Oceans Conservancy, Envision Education, Conservation Studies Institute, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and more this fall as part of our Institute-rate bookings in partnership with Cavallo Point Lodge. Through this partnership, environmental groups can apply for discounted, over-night meeting rates for bookings between the months of November and April of each year.

    The Institute was pleased to welcome Envision Education back to Fort Baker in early December. IGG Director, Chris Spence, gave a few brief remarks to the group including appreciation for their work providing young people, especially those from underserved communities, with an education that prepares them for the complex and intertwined challenges of being responsible stewards of the planet and society – a truly noble goal.

    The Gordon and Betty Moore Science team generously invited the Institute team to hang out around Cavallo Point’s fire pit and shoot the breeze. Staff shared what the Institute has been up to in the last year as well as a brief history of Fort Baker. In turn, the Science team gave updates on the amazing things they have been up to including, but not limited to, 1)work on a thirty meter telescope that will allow scientists to see the farthest reaches of the universe, study light from the earliest known stars, and test the fundamental laws of physics; 2) earthquake early-warning research and where the next big quake will hit; and 3) researching the ongoing aquatic and marine life fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. It was a reinvigorating afternoon spent with admired colleagues.

    Conservation Studies Institute has met at Fort Baker twice so far this fall and we couldn’t be more excited to welcome them back each time. The Institute is proud to call CSI friends and partner as we work together to keep the National Park Service a key player in the conservation world. This fall’s meetings included discussions on urban parks and the urban agenda.

    The above are just a sampling of some of the amazing groups that have taken advantage of our Institute rate. To learn how you can apply for this amazing deal and join the thousands of other professionals that have called Fort Baker home for their environmental meetings, check out our Convene page, or give us a call at (415) 561-3560.

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  • Institute Boosts Park Prescriptions Movement

    Park Prescriptions has grown out of a conceptual phase into a period of rapid implementation. To ensure the sustainability of the movement, the Institute at the Golden Gate recognized the need to solve the operational hurdles present in collaborations between parks and health entities—as well as the necessity to hone and measure the best delivery models currently in practice. The Institute began this process in September 2012 and recently hit a milestone by hosting a National Convening on Park Prescriptions in early October in Houston, Texas.

    The Institute and the National Recreation and Park Association—with assistance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—convened more than a dozen leaders representing the parks and health sector to refine on-the-ground tactics for program development program delivery, measurement, and professional training around park prescriptions.

    Together, the partnering organizations are furthering the movement to elevate the initiative from a new idea to a best practice in preventive health. The goal of the National Park Prescriptions Initiative is to establish national standards, based on qualitative and quantitative evidence from programs across the country, to increase the quality of new and existing programs and support more accurate evaluation of program impacts. This time next year we hope to be disseminating a suite of resources to make it easier for diverse communities to implement a park prescriptions program of their own.

    Experts in the fields of health, parks, and recreation are committed to making individuals and communities healthier through regular use and enjoyment of parks and public lands. In the coming years health care providers will be able to easily prescribe time outside for patients of all backgrounds—and parks will continue to be seen as places for health and wellness across the country.

    See you in the parks!

    From Park E-ventures, November 2013

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  • Park Rx Goes National

    The idea that health care professionals could prescribe nature and outdoor activity has been around for several years, with "park prescriptions" now being pioneered by several organizations in various parts of the country.

    On Monday, October 7, representatives of some key organizations agreed to take things to the next level at the first ever "National Convening on Park Prescriptions". The event, which took place in Houston, Texas, was co-hosted by the Institute at the Golden Gate and the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). The meeting included leaders and park champions from across the country, such as the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF), the "Walk With a Doc" group, Kids in Parks, and groups working on diabetes treatment and prevention, children's health and kinesiology. Other groups that played a critical role in the lead up to this meeting but were unable to attend due to the government shutdown included the National Park Service and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

    The event was a huge success and we will now be moving forward together as part of a growing national movement to prescribe parks and nature for people's mental and physical health. Watch this space for more news on this exciting movement in the coming weeks and months!

    Chris Spence

    Director, Institute at the Golden Gate


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  • It’s been an exciting year for the Institute’s Food Program! In June, the National Park Service (NPS) – in collaboration with the Institute - announced new guidelines promoting healthy and sustainable food options as a part of the national Healthy Parks, Healthy People initiative. We are making exciting strides to ensure that when you visit a national park, you will get to hike to beautiful sights and also taste delicious, locally-sourced, sustainable bites.

    How is this transition to sustainable sourcing taking place? We have seen wonderful successes in select dining establishments already, so now we are taking on the challenge of assisting NPS concessioners across the country to make more environmentally-friendly, socially-conscious, and financially-responsible food sourcing decisions.  

    Our three-prong approach includes designing regional-based tools, establishing local connections, and highlighting best practices.

    Designing Regional-based Tools

    Selecting NPS concessions contracts involves multiple, standardized steps across the country, which are detailed in the Institute’s Food for the Parks report. To promote local, sustainable foods in accordance to the NPS food and beverage concessions proposal process, the Institute is developing a cost evaluation tool. The function of this tool will help to determine the local versus non-local price differentials for high demand food and beverage items in various regions of the country. This information will help concessioners shape significant financial sourcing decisions. A special focus will be given to items which grow locally in a region while opportunities to consider alternate menu options will be presented.

    Establishing Local Connections

    Because sustainable food systems strategy has its roots in local community development and environmental stewardship, the Institute is also providing real-time data on the availability of local and hyperlocal food and beverages. Utilizing information from our friends at Real Time Farms and USDA, parks concessioners will be able to identify, manage, and investigate cost differentials through potential relationships with local farmers, food hubs, and farmers markets. Participating in local food economies will ensure savings in energy expenditure, transportation costs, promote healthier farming practices, and result in higher quality, less-processed food and beverages for parks visitors.

    Highlighting Best Practices

    To supplement the regional cost evaluation tool and local sourcing information we are developing, the Institute will continue to develop and distribute educational materials highlighting the value of sourcing local and sustainable food and beverages. The Institute will design trainings on how to utilize cost evaluation tools and design resources for successful implementation.

    Through this approach, the Institute will continue to support the dynamic NPS Healthy Food Program and promote the environmental, economic, and social benefits of responsible sourcing. We look forward to updating you as our food work moves forward!

    Our featured blog writer, Namita M. Koppa, currently serves as the Institute's Food Program Consultant. With a background in public health, sustainable food systems, and geospatial analysis, she is passionate about finding holistic, creative, and cost-effective solutions to sustainability challenges. Raised by a mom and dad who love to travel, Namita has fond childhood memories of road-tripping to the nation's most beautiful sites via cargo van. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the world, being active, hearing peoples' stories, making craft beer ice creams, and cheering on the Duke University Blue Devils.

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  • Getting Started With Collective Impact

    I want to share one example of a process we have used to strengthen Healthy Parks, Healthy People practice in our region. The model is called “collective impact” and it is gaining traction around the country. We first heard about collective impact in Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) and have been implementing it ever since.

    Healthy Parks, Healthy People (HPHP) doesn’t refer to any one program. Originally a messaging campaign adopted by Parks Victoria in Australia, HPHP serves as an umbrella for any and all activities that draw a connection between public lands and human health.

    For the past several years, parks all over the globe have been working to put this concept into practice, figuring out what it means by reaching out to unfamiliar partners and testing new programs and practices. Here in the Bay Area, we saw this happening to varying degrees of success. There was a fair amount of friendly competition as different agencies were tried to solve different pieces of the HPHP puzzle. Here at the Institute, we thought creating a more formalized community of practice could create a rising tide to lift all boats. But more than just sharing information with each other, we believed there may be some things we could only achieve if we tackled them together—an elephant in the room we might only move if we each put a hand on it.

    Beginning in June 2012, we launched a series of monthly meetings that were very carefully crafted to help all park and public land agencies in the Bay Area to realize a common health agenda. Participants spanned parks and public lands, public health, private healthcare, and community advocacy groups.

    Get Others Excited

    Our first meeting was an invitation to play in the kiddie pool, giving our participants an opportunity to see if this kind of collaborative work was for them. We asked participants to think about areas in their HPHP practice where they were struggling to make traction on their own as a single organization. We shared those—which ranged from addressing transportation needs to using the right language to communicate with local communities—and then broke into groups to tease out what some collaborative solutions in those areas might look like. At our meeting’s close, we invited folks to continue the conversation by joining our series of monthly strategy meetings and craft an HPHP agenda that would move our entire region forward. Of the 50+ participants in this meeting, about 12 organizations committed to meeting monthly with us to create the initiative from scratch.

    Define a Clear Target

    At the next session with this committed leadership team, we mapped out all of our current activities and identified gaps. We started to see that we weren’t sure if our HPHP activities were reaching those communities that could benefit the most from healthy activities in our parks. And to be honest, we didn’t know those communities very well. We also recognized that, so far, our new HPHP regional collaboration had mostly attracted interested park actors but not as many health or community leaders. We guessed that we might not yet be attracting the right health stakeholders because we didn’t have something really concrete to offer yet from the park side and took that into account as we proposed activities we might take on together.

    At our third session, we tried to more concretely articulate our purpose statement in coming together. We recognized that we could not take on all HPHP principles at once, so we chose a defined target. There is evidence that park prescriptions most benefit communities of low income and traditionally low access to parks. These are often also communities with the most health disparity and at the highest risk of chronic health problems. We decided that, to really make an impact with HPHP, we were going to prioritize our activities to serve those communities with high health risk first.

    Start Something Tangible

    With this target now in place, we had a clear outcome to strategize toward: increase the wellbeing of high health need communities through regular use and enjoyment of our parks. This statement, though simple, clarified our audience (high health needs first) and the type of behavior change we were aiming for (prioritize enjoyment rather than rigorous activity; regular use rather than one-off or semi-annual events).

    We debated several proposals for “first step, low-hanging fruit” activities we could take on together. We judged them against a set of criteria we created to help us stick close to our target. After much brainstorm and debate, we agreed that the best first step we could take was to commit to offering consistent, culturally relevant programing designed for first-time park users that health care providers could prescribe just as easily as a drug you could pick up at Walgreens. We thought, how incredible would it be for this to take place in every park and open space in the Bay Area at a time that works for residents and is consistent? The Director of Maternal and Child Health at the San Francisco Department of Public Health agreed that this targeted programming would be a huge offering to the healthcare and public health community in our region. This became our agenda for 2013.

    The Power of Collective Impact

    Our “warm-welcome” HPHP park programming now takes place the first Saturday of every month in over 23 park sites around the Bay Area with over thirty agencies and organizations on board. Some things are standardized, like the way we measure participation and program outcomes, but in many ways the programming itself is varied, as well as the recruitment strategy, so we are able to compare different approaches in different communities, evaluate and improve what we are doing.

    Just to tease out the timeline: within two months we were committed to a target—the change or outcome we were trying to seek together. Within about four months we had committed to an agenda for action and a timeline. And after twelve months we are moving full steam ahead, practicing and measuring our progress. This group of over twenty park agencies and a dozen health and community supporters decided that it wanted to create an MOU that would hold us accountable to this agenda through 2015. All of this was driven by the members of the collaborative; as the facilitative leaders, we committed to holding the process and asking the right questions at the right times.

    Friends and Allies

    If you are looking to create a collective impact collaboration for your social issue or cause, know that you’ve got allies behind you. Click here for a summary of different programs we modeled our own effort on. While it may not be exactly clear which “low-hanging fruit” your community will take on right away, we are confident that you can get started with only the resources you have at hand. Once you share a commitment to improvement with the right stakeholders and have set a few ways you plan to measure your success and hold yourselves accountable, taking meaningful action comes easily.

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  • Climate Action: Who Will Lead?

    Who can lead the way on climate change? Many years ago, I thought the solutions might come from the top, and that politicians or diplomats had the answers. Now, I believe progress can come locally and that we all have a role to play. I take heart from the multitude of local and regional initiatives that have blossomed in recent years. Regional and local governments, individual cities and states, as well as neighborhoods, communities, and schools, are all leading bottom-up movements for change. There are also many nonprofit organizations, think tanks, companies, and entrepreneurs who are genuinely and seriously engaged. We can feel inspired by such energy, and should be finding ways to support and scale up such activities.

    The Institute at the Golden Gate is supporting this movement with a program of our own. Our initiative is focused on using parks to engage the public on climate change. In our latest report published in May 2013, we identified examples of innovative, effective, and powerful educational programs in 13 parks around the world. During the course of our research, we identified many more parks where the public were being informed about climate change in a compelling, empowering way.

    Parks are on the front line of climate change. Park rangers and other staff members are a trusted and respected source of information. What better place could there be for the public to be informed and inspired on this critical issue? While some visitors are already learning from our parks, an even larger number could benefit. With 283 million visitors to U.S. national parks alone, we believe there’s an opportunity to scale up and increase the impact.

    To read my full article published recently in the Global Institute of Sustainability's Thought Leader series, please visit:

    Chris Spence
    Director, Institute at the Golden Gate

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  • Since 2009, the Institute at the Golden Gate has been catalyzing partnership opportunities into action and helping to make the idea of Healthy Parks, Healthy People mainstream. To this point, the Institute has built a national movement by telling the stories of successful "park prescriptions" programs around the country and inspiring leaders in the parks and health fields to take up the charge.

    Over the last year we have begun a partnership with the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and the National Recreation and Park Association to compare data from park prescription pilots around the country. Together we have reached out to over two dozen experts and those already implementing park prescriptions, in order help to set national standards for programming. These experts and implementers will gather for an in-person convening in October 2013 to set the agenda and vision for park prescriptions moving forward. We hope this will further solidify Healthy Parks, Healthy People as a policy practice, and provide the evidence and rigor it needs to survive beyond any one administration or individual champion.

    The Institute is committed to supporting a growing network of medical practitioners, insurance providers, parks and federal lands, and the communities they serve to establish and share best practices to connect healthcare and park resources. We look forward to reporting back in mid-October to share next steps on how park prescriptions programs will be improved and increased around the country in the coming years.

    See you in the parks!

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  • The Institute's starting point is our belief that parks and public lands can play a critical role in tackling many of society’s biggest social and environmental challenges. Working closely with partner organizations, we identify unique opportunities to bring about change locally, regionally, and nationally.

    From Local to National

    Since the Institute was established in 2008, we have developed a model for changing systems locally, regionally, and nationally. Our starting point is usually a specific success or approach we feel could be replicated elsewhere and taken to scale. For instance, in the realm of food policy, we were inspired by local examples in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area of cafés serving healthy, delicious, and sustainably-grown food in parks. A few years ago, examples like Muir Woods Cafe were rare in national parks, which often had a reputation for serving food that failed to match the awe-inspiring vistas and other sensory pleasures visitors come to parks to experience. The idea that the mission and values of parks could be embodied in all aspects of the visitor experience—including food service—resonated with us.

    Inspired by local efforts to innovate for a better food experience, the Institute researched and published two reports examining how all parks could start to serve food that stands up to a spectacular park experience while also supporting a conservation mission. With the Institute’s support, the U.S. National Park Service adopted standards and guidelines that will affect the nutrition as well as the sustainability of tens of millions of meals served across all of America’s national parks. With these standards in place, NPS now leads the way for other large food service operators in other sectors such as museums, hospitals, schools, and stadiums, and is sharing its expertise across the country.

    Partnerships and Pilot Testing

    The Institute is fortunate to work with some remarkable collaborators in California, nationally, and internationally. In San Francisco, we draw on the expertise and connections of our parent organization, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and our partner, the National Park Service. In fact, partnerships are at the heart of everything we do. We believe that collaboration is the key to scaling up good policy and practice.

    While we have the support of innovative partners in the Bay Area and are often inspired by their ideas and leadership, we actively seek out innovation wherever it can be found. For instance, one of the most original park responses to a larger societal problem first appeared in Australia. Several years ago, Parks Victoria developed a new concept called Healthy Parks, Healthy People. The idea was to make parks and outdoor spaces an active part of the movement towards preventive health care. The Institute at the Golden Gate and other allies in regional and national parks helped bring the idea back to the U.S.

    The next stage was to test the Healthy Parks, Healthy People concept to prove that it could work in practice. Locally, the Institute has been working extensively with land management and health agencies in the Bay Area to test the concept rigorously. In San Francisco, we have worked with our city parks and health officials to pilot the idea that doctors should be prescribing nature and outdoor activities to patients. Across the wider Bay Area region, we are working with 30 organizations to help roll out Healthy Parks, Healthy People programs across nine counties. We are also working with experts nationally and internationally to help identify best practice and how we might bring it to scale.

    A Model for Change

    While every challenge requires a different solution, the Institute's approach often involves several tried-and-tested steps. These include painstaking research, publishing case studies and roadmaps, convening key stakeholders, testing ideas on the ground, and finally, influencing decision makers.

    One example of this approach is our work on climate change education. In 2012, the Institute identified another area where our distinctive approach and networks could allow us to have an outsize impact: climate change. Parks are often on the frontline of climate change impacts. The National Park Service and many other park agencies both in the U.S. and internationally are taking climate change seriously, planning adaptation strategies and responses. Some park superintendents are also using this as an opportunity to engage the public on this critical issue. However, such examples are far from universal. Hundreds of millions of people visit parks and protected areas around the globe. Many are not educated or informed about climate change by their visit to the park.

    The Institute views this as a huge missed opportunity to communicate effectively with a massive audience about the impacts of climate change. There is a clear gap in existing climate communications and obvious benefits if this gap could be filled.

    Following the approach taken successfully in our food and health programs, our work on climate education focused in its first stage on taking stock of current activities: Who is currently educating the public about climate change in a park context? How are they educating them and with what success? The results of this research were published in May 2013 (see our climate page for more).

    The next stage will be to start a dialogue among key stakeholders to identify best practices from among the many different methods currently employed and identify opportunities to spread good practice. We will hold a major conference in the Bay Area in November 2013: a high-level, cross-sector event to identify new models and methods for using parks as an important educational tool. Finally, the Institute will take these lessons to decision makers regionally, nationally, and internationally with a view to moving policy forward.

    In order to truly effect change, we believe every good policy must become a widely-adopted, common practice. To ensure that the best ideas across our programs stand the test of time, our work is complemented, as needed, by local pilot testing of identified “best practice” to prove beyond all doubt that the policies are effective, replicable and scalable. As our climate program matures, you can expect to see local pilots, communities of practice, and regional collaborations emerge to stand alongside our existing food and health demonstration projects.

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