Park Prescriptions Lead the Way
for Health Equity in Santa Cruz County
Much has been said about the healing power of nature. Now, it is being increasingly prescribed by medical professionals in Santa Cruz County.
In addition to checking blood pressure and other vitals, providers at Salud Para La Gente (Salud) also now ask patients how many minutes per week they spend outdoors. If the answer is less than 120 minutes per week, the patients are prescribed a “ParkRx,” and referred directly to the City of Watsonville Parks and Community Services team who enroll them in one of many available free parks programs.
Less than three months after launch, the Salud - Watsonville program shows steady growth with a recent patient reporting, “ParkRx has changed my lifestyle. Now I look for places to go for walks. I enjoy nature.”
ParkRx is an international movement to prescribe parks, nature and programming to improve health. The local effort, called ParkRxSantaCruzCounty (ParkRxSCC), is staffed in-kind by Santa Cruz County Public Health’s CalFresh Healthy Living Program, County Park Friends, and Watsonville Parks and Community Services, who came together to address the desire for more equitable park programming and to help steward our amazing local parks and beaches as key drivers of health and equity.
“Park prescriptions as a practice are evidence-based and address many health needs of our community,” says Kristal Caballero, Project Director for CalFresh Healthy Living and co-lead for ParkRxSCC. “They increase physical activity and park visits, decrease stress and loneliness, and increase overall well-being and quality of life.” Just 120 minutes a week can lead to these benefits, and it doesn't matter how these minutes are achieved or in what increments, as long as folks get outdoors.
Santa Cruz County parks, beaches and programs offer a wealth of impactful, cost-effective, health-promoting resources. Clinical prescription of these resources by a trusted health professional is shown to be effective in encouraging new habits and increasing participation.
“Similar programs have been successful in other communities and we are thrilled with the response here in Santa Cruz County,” says Mariah Roberts, co-lead for ParkRxSCC. “This local effort came about during and after the COVID-19 pandemic as both mental and physical health issues sky-rocketed and the outdoors became a haven for many.”
While all people can benefit from time in nature, the ParkRxSCC team has targeted their limited capacity through a targeted equity strategy - the implementation of a closed-loop ParkRxSCC referral system where providers prescribe specific, free programming. The Salud and City of Watsonville partnership offers a glimpse into the first stages of this approach, showing high demand and vast potential to scale.
In the closed-loop model, Park professionals receive direct referrals from Salud and provide enrollment assistance for the patient. Sometimes the whole family benefits. “In one of our first successful referrals,¨says Jessica Beebe, Recreation Supervisor with the City of Watsonville Parks and Community Services and co-lead for ParkRxSCC. “[She] was referred for the grades 6-12 Winter Wonderland Camp and she, and two of her siblings, registered for the program while on the call with our customer service team!”
Health providers at Salud are thrilled about the program, too, and see its potential. “At Salud, we know how important being outside in nature is to our physical and mental health. ParkRxSCC has been the perfect partner for us by giving us the tools to share with our patients on how they can increase their time outdoors in our amazing local parks and green spaces.” says Devon R. Francis, MD, Director of Pediatrics, Salud Para La Gente.
Due to popular demand to scale to more clinics, the ParkRxSCC team has also created materials that can be used widely by health professionals across the County. Printable Tip Sheets, educational materials and videos are available now on the ParkRxSCC website (parkrxsantacruzcounty.org) for any provider, clinician or health educator to download and utilize. These resources outline self-directed options like prescribing a specific amount of time outdoors per week or identifying parks near a patient’s home.
“You don’t have to be a doctor to prescribe!” says Caballero. “We’re asking anyone who works in the health field - nurses, promotoras, MA’s, health educators, social workers - to consider adding this health messaging to your practice. You’re a trusted voice for your community and we aim to provide the right tools for you to effectively help your patients get outdoors and enjoy the numerous health benefits!”
“ParkRx Santa Cruz County is a model public health program and approach,” says Emily Chung, the Public Health Director for Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency.” Not only does it engage multiple sectors to address racial and health equity in collaborative ways, but also helps address climate change impacts by developing a greater understanding, connection to, and appreciation of our natural environment. It’s a win, win, win for our community, and we’re excited to continue to see it grow.”