June 14, 2018
By Gali Laska
Your local city park is likely playing a vital role in your city’s health, and probably your own mental health too. Parks and other “green spaces” help keep cities cool, and as places of recreation, can help with health issues such as anxiety and depression. Just looking at greenery can make you feel better! But in increasingly crowded cities, it can be difficult to find room for parks and other green spaces. About 66% of the world’s population lives in a bustling loud city. But do they know that the lack of green may be the reason they feel less motivated, happy and fulfilled?
Most likely not, considering that when architects and city planners initially created the blue prints for their cities, they didn’t realize it either. Something has to change, and it is changing—toward greener cityscapes. Great Ecology works everyday with different municipalities and businesses that need assistance in making their properties more ecologically friendly. This includes developing better management plans for city parks, converting nonnative landscapes to native landscapes to improve resiliency, developing mitigation plans, helping coastal areas plan for sea-level rise, and creating stormwater wetlands.
And, we hardly work alone in this. The importance of greener cities is being researched on many fronts, from ecological to psychological impacts.
Over the past 25 years, psychologists have begun to understand the impact that the urban environment has on its citizens. Researcher Colin Ellard, who studies the psychological impact of design at the University of Waterloo in Canada, found that people are strongly affected by building façades. He performed an experiment where individuals were instructed to walk past specific buildings while wearing a bracelet that monitors skin physiological arousal. When the subjects would walk past a long, smoked glass frontage of a grocery store for example, arousal took a dive and they quickened their pace, as if to get out of that area. As soon as they entered a stretch of restaurants their arousal picked up and their pace slowed down. Each restaurant was surrounded by various plants and other eye-catching additions to make for a more arousing place.
What do the findings of this study tell us? Colin Ellard shared the following sentiment “Historically, the attitude toward the importance of green space has been basically to consider the presence of greenery as an aesthetic nicety, rather than as something of fundamental importance to people’s psychological state.” We need to start building with the thought of mental and physiological health in mind, not just feel good aesthetics. Having more plants can lower blood pressure, reduce muscle tension, improve attention, and reduce the feeling of fear and aggression.
Studies have shown that patients recovering from surgery in a room overlooking trees recovered faster and with less fewer complications than those overlooking a brick wall. Having a greener environment not only affects mental health, but also physical health. In children, ADD symptoms are relieved after contact with nature. Green spaces may enable people to think more clearly and cope more effectively with life’s stresses. Overall green is good. Whether it means reducing symptoms or increasing happiness, the need for green in the everyday life is a necessity. Perhaps this is linked to what E.O. Wilson coined as “biophilia.”
Biophilia is the positive effect that being around blue water, green trees and space give us. It is also the love of earth and the environment. Biophilia suggests that humans seek connections with nature and other forms of life. It makes us healthier, more productive, and more generous.
That’s nice, of course, but how do we implement this in our cities?
Amanda Burden had a huge part of making New York into a greener city. Burden fought for the High Line and for making a public space for citizens to be able to enjoy the environment. Amanda said “Public space always need vigilant champions. Not only to claim them at the outsets of public use but to design them for the people that use them, then to maintain them to ensure that they are for everyone…Public spaces have power. It’s not just the number people using them, but the even greater amount of people that feel better about their city just knowing that they are there.”
You may ask: Does having a greener environment affect my social life? The answer is yes. When living the busy life, you might not have enough time to just be, and take in your surroundings, especially if your surroundings consist of cement and bustling streets. Even those of us who aren’t living in the city may feel stuck in harried lives filled with the need for speed and technology.
Most of us are constantly doing things that keep us busy—and as a result we don’t make time to stop and look around. If a city (or any other local government) fosters inviting green spaces that make it easier to have social interactions outside, mental health would likely improve.
Dr. Andrew Lee, a public health researcher at the University of Sheffield in England says: “If it’s a social space where people meet together and chat and go on walks, that kind of social contact and interaction builds social networks, that’s probably where the real impact is coming from that gives people a sense of wellbeing.”
While city officials have work to do, we need to spend more time looking out at the world instead of looking down at our screens. We need to surround ourselves with human interaction and nature so that our mood and our lifestyle improve. Making public places more accessible—and encouraging people to use them and letting them know how their lives are affected without them—can improve the health and well-being of citizens.
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