Several studies have shown that green spaces in urban areas have a positive effect on the wellbeing and quality of life of people living and working nearby. Hence, it is not surprising that the most liveable and also some of the most famous cities in the world are known for their green spaces, such as Hyde Park in London or Central Park in New York. But, how do parks, gardens and co. make us happier and healthier?
Physical inactivity is one of the major public health risks according to the World Health Organization. In Australia, almost half of the population does not meet the recommended minimum of 30 minutes of physical activity per day. Green spaces provide opportunities for physical activity, and people living and working near vegetated areas are three times more likely to meet this recommended minimum (1). Regular exercise is not only important to maintain physical health, it also improves cognitive function, learning and memory (3).
But not only physical activity impacts our mental health in a positive way when in green spaces. A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that, when in a green space, the brain enters a meditative state. This, in turn, enhances people’s mood and helps to reduce mental fatigue and stress by restoring and relaxing the mind (2). Physical, but also visual access to green spaces helps to restore the mind’s ability to focus, contributing to improved performance and satisfaction at work or school. The de-stressing effect of nature has even been known to alleviate the symptoms of mental illnesses, such as depression, dementia, Altzheimers and ADD, and several studies have shown that patients in hospital recover better after surgery when having a view of nature through their hospital windows. Moreover, encounters with nature are important for the development of children’s cognitive and emotional capacities, encouraging creativity and imagination (3).
And the list of benefits goes on: Green spaces encourage social interaction. This supports the development of a sense of community and belonging, which is a key component of social wellbeing. When involved in the decision-making process of local and environmental matters, this is enhanced even further (4).
Trees are not only nice to look at, they also provide shade in summer and support urban cooling, reducing heat-related health problems. In winter, many trees drop off their leaves and allow light in, which is crucial for mental wellbeing (5).
A US American study evaluated the 85 largest cities of the country and found that the estimated health savings from parks was $3.08 billion (1). A Dutch study suggests that health complaints in communities are postponed by five years with every 10% increase in green space (5).
We believe that all these benefits should be food for thought for anyone involved in public health, policy making and urban planning. So, let there be more parks in our cities!
Want to learn more? Have a look at this short video of Matthew White from the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter Medical School, explaining the insights from a groundbreaking 18 years long study on the impact of urban green spaces on wellbeing.