It’s no secret that Stockton is a regular on Forbes’ “Most Miserable City” list. While Stocktonians are a tough breed, putting up with the city’s issues and negative image can be draining. So what can the city do to give us some hope and lift our spirits as we continue to persevere? How about retaking our public parks?
Everyone loves a good park, and it turns out places with more parks have happier people. A recent study in the UK found that residents living in areas with parks, gardens and trees reported higher levels of life satisfaction and lower levels of mental distress. Researchers also noted that the level of happiness attributed to proximity to green space is roughly the same as the third of the happiness experienced by being married or a tenth of the happiness of being employed. In other words, being near a park won’t make you euphoric, but it can certainly brighten your day. These findings dovetail with other research showing how greenery benefits our mental health. Unfortunately, many of Stockton’s parks are underutilized, underfunded and frequented by vagrants. But just a small investment in these public spaces can be a cost effective way to make Stocktonians a little happier.
“These kinds of comparisons are important for policymakers when trying to decide how to invest scarce public resources, such as for park development or upkeep, and figuring out what ‘bang’ they’ll get for their buck” said Dr. Matthew White, one of the study’s authors.
This is important to note as the city has had to make draconian cuts to park services, leaving public spaces underserviced and trees dying from mistletoe. We already know that trees and parks improve property values, and if investing more money into park maintenance is scientifically proven to make people happier, it should be a priority of any city.
This doesn’t mean Stockton needs some sort of grandiose public works project to create a green utopia. In reality, the city simply needs to spruce up existing green spaces. Many city parks have become overrun with graffiti and crime as resources for maintenance and policing have run scarce. Perhaps investing in parks so that citizens feel safe using them may have a positive effect on the psyche of Stocktonians.
Take Fremont Square, for example. Earlier this year, restrooms were closed and benches were removed from the park to discourage loiterers and drug dealers. Now, children from the nearby downtown charter schools use the space for activities. While removing benches is probably not the most intuitive way to reclaim a public space, this example underscores the importance of taking back parks so that they can be enjoyed as they were originally intended. Our parks should be revered, not feared.
Once the city becomes solvent, then it may make sense to invest in more ambitious plans to expand the park system, such as with the Waterfront Connections project. As for now, reclaiming city parks would go a long way in boosting the morale of Stocktonians who are too afraid to enjoy public spaces.