NC State
The Larson Lab

Concerns regarding the adverse physical, psychological, and social health consequences of “nature-deficit disorder” have catalyzed a movement to connect people and nature. In this line of inquiry, we work with multiple agencies and organizations to assess park use, outdoor recreation patterns and preferences, and their relationship to human health and well-being. Our goal is to foster human-nature connections and develop recommendations that ensure the cultural ecosystem services (and health benefits) provided by parks and green space are enjoyed by people from all backgrounds. Our research in this thematic area includes studies of:

  • Park and outdoor recreation resource management
  • Physical activity and health
  • Urban ecosystem services and social determinants of health
  • Youth and nature

Lab projects related to this research theme are highlighted below. Be sure to check out the papers and presentations pages for more details about each study.


Current/Ongoing Projects

Urban Parks, Ecosystem Services, & Human Well-being

Project Partners & Dates: Multiple agencies and universities (2014-present)

Over half of the world’s population lives in cities, and that number is growing rapidly. Urbanization has important implications for human health and well-being. Through the provision of urban ecosystem services, parks and urban green space provide a variety of physical, psychological, social, and economic benefits to urban residents. These benefits may have substantial positive impacts, yet the overall effects of urban ecosystem services – particularly cultural services – has been difficult to quantify. We are working with colleagues at multiple agencies and universities to address the growing need to define and operationalize the contributions of parks to human welfare. Project outputs (e.g., review papers, essays, secondary data analyses) should help researchers and practitioners understand how the ecosystem services provided by urban parks and green space contribute to different aspects of well-being across demographically diverse populations.

Green Space & Children’s Mental Health

Project Partners & Dates: U.S. Forest Service (2015-present)

This project, supported by the US Forest Service’s National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council (NUCFAC), is one of the first to examine the effects of exposure to managed natural environments on the expression of core and associated autism symptoms in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The analysis includes correlational studies using data from National Land Cover Databases and the National Surveys of Children’s Health as well as experimental, within-subjects repeated measures design studies of children with ASD experiencing two different conditions (walks in indoor settings and walks in managed natural environments) across 4 different states. Data from this project will answer questions about the relationship between urban land cover, tree canopy coverage, and the expression of core and associated ASD symptoms, ultimately informing the management of urban green space to promote healthy youth development.

Benefits of Urban Greenways in Diverse Communities

Project Partners & Dates: Atlanta Beltline, Inc; Chicago Park District; San Antonio Dept. of Parks & Recreation; U.S. Forest Service (2015-present)

Recent urban migration trends have created concerns about the quality of life in cities. To enhance health and well-being in urban environments, many cities are heavily investing in parks and green space. Greenways represent “corridors of benefits” that can improve health and wellness, facilitate connections with nature, foster social interactions, add value to marginal land, and enhance connectivity across the urban landscape. Unfortunately, many greenways fail to achieve these goals. We are working with colleagues in the U.S. Forest Service and municipal park agencies in major U.S. cities (e.g., Atlanta, Chicago, San Antonio) to understand why. Focusing on a prominent trail in each city, our study investigates greenway use, constraints to use, and public perceptions of benefits along greenway segments that traverse racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods. Integration of qualitative and quantitative results will highlight patterns of greenway activity and significant barriers to use that could help inform greenway design and management in diverse urban areas.

Broader Impacts of the “First Day Hikes” Initiative

Project Partners & Dates: National Association of State Park Directors (2015-present)

First Day Hikes, which occur on New Year’s Day in state parks across America, are a nationwide initiative designed to help more people enjoy the benefits of nature-based recreation. Despite the rapidly growing popularity of these hikes (in 2016, over 56,000 people across the U.S. attended one of these events), relatively little is known about the hikers themselves and the larger impacts of First Day Hikes on society and the natural environment. Our study characterizes the population of First Day Hikers, identifies motivations for hiking, and examines larger impacts of the First Day Hike experience in terms of sustained outdoor recreation participation, health and well-being, environmental stewardship behavior, and overall support for parks.


Past/Completed Projects

Outdoor Recreation & Diversity in Georgia State Parks

Project Partners & Dates: GA Dept. of Natural Resources (2009-2014)

Working with colleagues from the Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources at the Univ. of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, we conducted a comprehensive assessment of state park visitation and outdoor recreation behavior across ethnically diverse populations. We used visitor observations, exit surveys, and on-site and off-site intercept surveys to explore the benefits associated with state park use in Georgia (including park-based physical activity and children’s outdoor experiences) and examine if and how these benefits are enjoyed by visitors from different backgrounds. This study led to Dr. Larson’s dissertation, and project outputs helped to identify strategies that should allow state park managers to better serve their increasing diverse clientele.

Children’s Time Outdoors across America

Project Partners & Dates: U.S. Forest Service (2010-2011)

During two years of graduate school, Dr. Larson worked with colleagues in the U.S. Forest Service to assess trends in children’s time spent outdoors and popular outdoor activities using data from the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment’s (NSRE) Kid Module (which was initiated in 2007). The study provided a comprehensive baseline for monitoring children’s outdoor recreation over time, identifying potential problems and mitigation strategies that may help to combat the effects of nature-deficit disorder.