Urban Green Space and Better Health

There is an growing body of scholarship that supports the cultivation of green spaces in urban environments as a vital part of healthcare and wellbeing provision in cities and communities (Pearson and Craig 2014; Wyles et al. 2017).  According to the constitution of the World Health Organisation health is ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. In other words, it includes both physical andpsychological wellbeing. Good health then is not only the improvement of symptoms associated with chronic illness, but must also include the presence of positive emotions like life satisfaction, a sense of community and happiness (Soga, Gaston, and Yamaura 2017).

We have long known that urban parks provide sites for physical activity and that exercise reduces the prevalence of most chronic diseases and enhances healthiness in general. More recent evidence, however, has demonstrated the manifold positive associations between access to green spaces like forests, cemeteries, reserves, sports fields, conservation areas, and community gardens – and better health outcomes (Newell et al. 2013). For example, psychological wellbeing has been empirically linked to contact with green areas (Berto 2014; Bertram and Rehdanz 2015).  And according to research in environmental psychology simply being in a ‘natural’ environment can help promote recovery from stress.  Parks are said to provide a sense of peace and tranquillity and they can function as a locus of social interaction and play – both associated with positive health indicators. Evidence also suggests that green spaces increase perceptions of safety and belonging.  And Fuller et al.(2009)have found positive associations between species richness and self-reported psychological contentment. Louv (2005)has shown that children who lack access to urban green space can suffer from a wide range of behavioural problems; and that interaction with flora and fauna is crucial to child development. Gardens in care homes have been found to be beneficial for reducing the agitation and aggression linked to dementia, while hospices make use of the tranquillity of green spaces as part of end-of-life care (Triggle 2016).

What’s more, green spaces also support the ecological integrity of cities which is turn have health benefits for the people living and working in them. For instance, trees and plants help to filter air and remove pollution. In 2019 the World Health Organisation found that around seven million people die each year from exposure to polluted air. Vegetation also helps to attenuate noise pollution – another source of stress reported to be increasing in urban environments. And urban forests can moderate temperatures by providing shade and cooling  and thus helping reduce the risk of heat-related illnesses for city dwellers (Wolch, Byrne, and Newell 2014).

But it isn’t simply being present in green spaces that can aid better health (see my post on Therapy Gardens). Producing and cultivating them is also increasingly being recognised as a crucial part of the story. Gardening has been linked to lower BMIs, reduced stress, fatigue and depression, better cognitive function, and also to the prevention or management of diabetes, circulatory problems and heart disease (Buck 2016; Soga et al. 2017; Thompson 2018; Van-Den-Berg and Custers 2011).

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In Britain, Hospital Foundations, mental health, homeless and dementia charities are beginning to offer not only access to green spaces as part of their efforts to improve the health of citizens, but also opportunities for publics to get involved in their cultivation.

This seems like a very positive move in the endeavour for healthier cities (Soga et al. 2017). However, there are some caveats we should be mindful of.  Some studies on green spaces and health reveal that access disproportionately benefits white, able bodied and more affluent communities (McConnachie and Shackleton 2010; Wolch et al. 2014). And enhancing natural amenities in cities has been shown to in many cities to paradoxically facilitate gentrification and increase property prices, further diminishing access to those constituents who might benefit the most (Newell et al. 2013).

Concerted effort needs to be made by urban planners and communities everywhere to keep this most valuable resource accessible and open to all for the good of healthy citizens everywhere.

 

Berto, Rita. 2014. “The Role of Nature in Coping with Psycho-Physiological Stress: A Literature Review on Restorativeness.” Behavioral Sciences4(4):394–409.

Bertram, Christine and Katrin Rehdanz. 2015. “The Role of Urban Green Space for Human Well-Being.” Ecological Economics120:139–52.

Buck, D. 2016. Gardens and Health Implications for Policy and Practice. Kings Fund.

Fuller, Richard and Gaston Kevin. 2009. “The Scaling of Green Space Coverage in European Cities.” Biology Letters5(3):352–55.

Louv, Richard. 2005. “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” SCHOLE: A Journal of Leisure Studies and Recreation Education21(1):136–37.

McConnachie, M. Matthew and Charlie M. Shackleton. 2010. “Public Green Space Inequality in Small Towns in South Africa.” Habitat International34(2):244–48.

Newell, Joshua P., Mona Seymour, Thomas Yee, Jennifer Renteria, Travis Longcore, Jennifer R. Wolch, and Anne Shishkovsky. 2013. “Green Alley Programs: Planning for a Sustainable Urban Infrastructure?” Cities31:144–55.

Pearson, David G. and Tony Craig. 2014. “The Great Outdoors? Exploring the Mental Health Benefits of Natural Environments.” Frontiers in Psychology5:1178.

Soga, Masashi, Kevin J. Gaston, and Yuichi Yamaura. 2017. “Gardening Is Beneficial for Health: A Meta-Analysis.” Preventive Medicine Reports5:92–99.

Thompson, Richard. 2018. “Gardening for Health: A Regular Dose of Gardening.” Clinical Medicine  18(3):201–5.

Triggle, N. 2016. “Gardening and Volunteering: The New Wonder Drugs?” BBC News Website.

Van-Den-Berg, Agnes and Mariëtte Custers. 2011. “Gardening Promotes Neuroendocrine and Affective Restoration from Stress.” Journal of Health Psychology16(1):3–11.

Wolch, Jennifer R., Jason Byrne, and Joshua P. Newell. 2014. “Urban Green Space, Public Health, and Environmental Justice: The Challenge of Making Cities ‘Just Green Enough.’” Landscape and Urban Planning125:234–44.

Wyles, Kayleigh J., Mathew P. White, Caroline Hattam, Sabine Pahl, Haney King, and Melanie Austen. 2017. “Are Some Natural Environments More Psychologically Beneficial Than Others? The Importance of Type and Quality on Connectedness to Nature and Psychological Restoration.” Environment and Behavior51(2):111–43.

 

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