by Stella Tarnay, Biophilic DC

IMG_0739The next time you go to a doctor, your prescription may be to a local park. Responding to an epidemic of diabetes and obesity among his pediatric patients, Dr. Robert Zarr has been prescribing activity in parks at his Upper Cardozo Health Center in Washington DC for the past several years. Dr. Zarr is at the forefront of a movement among physicians who are making nature a fundamental in their patients’ health care. On April 24th, the National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) joined him. Both agencies had recently initiated programs to support human health through outdoors activity, the USPH with a call to action for walkable communities, and NPS with the Healthy Parks Healthy People program. Their new cross-sector partnership was celebrated in Washington DC’s historic Meridian Hill Park with the first National ParkRX Day.

The day was a chapter out of Biophilic Cities. Imagine a beautiful open green with historic architecture and shady trees. Add kites, yoga, picnics, free massages, a ceremonial community dog walk, and plenty of benches under the trees to watch it all, or just sit and chat. The park was further enlivened with outdoor tables sponsored by local and national nature organizations, health clinics, university public heath departments, and the Public Health Service. Beside finding out about all kinds of interesting programs, you could get you blood pressure taken, get advice on insect bites, or pet a service dog.

IMG_0788Park Rangers and PHS staff were decked out in full uniform, all smiles as they watched their constituents enjoy the day. Doctors in white coats chatted with community residents and posed for pictures with trees. At every table, you could pick up your own ParkRX prescription for a day in the park. (The prescription card was designed by Michael Warner, Visual Communications Specialist at San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park.)

It would be easy to simply enjoy the day, but our local parks advocates reminded us that parks, like people, need care. Washington Parks and People, which has been a steward of Meridian Hill Park (also known locally as Malcolm X Park) organized an improvement project that invited participants to get their hands in the dirt and plant flowers. The project drew many people, especially children.

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U.S. Surgeon General signing park prescription for Americans.

The formal high point of ParkRX Day was a ceremony that included leaders from the national parks and public health communities: U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy; Barbara Tulipane, President of the National Recreation and Park Association; Tara Morrison, Superintendent of Rock Creek Park; and Dr. Robert Zarr. As part of the ceremony, Surgeon General Murthy signed a ParkRX prescription for Americans to get out to their National Parks. The ceremony was followed by a celebratory walk around the park by dignitaries and community residents.

This first National ParkRX Day marks the growing realization that urban parks—and nature experience—are integral to our health and wellbeing as urban residents. On this sunny day in Washington, the vote from our nation’s leaders and the community could not have been more joyfully clear.