The Benefits of Green Spaces in Communities

This is the second in a series of four articles exploring the benefits of urban green spaces.

Green Spaces in Cities Can Help People Live Longer Healthier Lives

Nearly half the world now lives in urban settlements; within 30 years, that number will rise to nearly two thirds of the global populations living in urban areas with scarce or limited access to open green space.  Our current U.S. local and national governments are grappling with the challenges of growing populations and providing safe parks and greens. However, over 150 years ago, defined by the City Beautiful Movement, city planners developed parks, planted trees, and dedicated greens in many of the most popular and adored cities.  In today’s urban environments, green spaces help mitigate the urban heat island effect, improve air quality, reduce noise, increase biodiversity, and reduce runoff. In addition, science is proving the quantity and quality of open green spaces has a direct impact on human health; both mental and physical.

Outdoor physical activities, social interaction and relaxation are important contributors to the physical and mental health of urban residents.  The health benefits are not only realized in green spaces near our homes; people are also affected by the green they encounter elsewhere — at work, at school, or along their commute. Studies have demonstrated that exercise alone is not the key determinant in positive health outcomes, but rather it is “green” exercise that significantly improves the benefits working out.

New research supports the idea that green spaces boost longevity, lower stress levels, decrease blood pressure and heart rates. Global studies demonstrate that urban green spaces reduce premature death by encouraging exercise while mitigating effects of climate change – making cities more sustainable and livable.  
Green Space Provides Mental Health Benefits as Well

Studies also show green spaces can impact our mental well-being–less mental distress, decreased anger, fatigue, less anxiety and depression, greater sense of well-being and healthier cortisol profiles are all benefits of living in communities with more green space. A higher quantity of nearby green space buffers life’s stresses – a finding demonstrated across all ages and cultures.

People who use the natural environment for physical activity at least once per week have about half the risk of poor mental health compared with those who do not; and each additional weekly use of the natural environment for physical activity reduces the risk of poor mental health by a further 6% . Simple exposure to nature environments is psychologically restorative and has beneficial influences on individuals’ emotions and ability to reflect on life problems.

The impact of green space throughout childhood is significant. Research has shown individuals who grew up with the least green space nearby had as much as a 55 percent increased risk of developing psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse in later years. Exposure to green space is comparable to family history and parental age when predicting mental health outcomes. The effect of green space is also dose-dependent, meaning those who have longer exposures to green space have greater mental health benefits.

The Quality of Green Space Matters.

Some spaces are inviting, some serene and contemplative, others come in the form of beautifully designed parks with an array of amenities. Research has found that it is not the sheer quantity of residential green space that is important, but the quality. In some cases, residential scale landscapes, specifically functional, traditional ‘greenery’ can lead to a sense of isolation, which may counteract the mental health benefits of public, larger greens. The limitations of a front lawn and the suburban yard can be constraining for some.  For this reason, most find parks — high quality, safe, spaces fostering a sense of community — to be more appealing and restorative.  Presumably, that is because these parks offer the benefits of nature, while still permitting people to feel connected with other members of their community.

Parks are healthy. Spending time outdoors is restorative.  As much as we value our health, we should value our trails, our parks, and our greens.  In today’s terms this means making them public, accessible by all and not only a ‘perk’ for the privileged but a resource for everyone. 

1 “Health Benefits of Green Spaces in the Living Environment: A Systematic Review of Epidemiological Studies”, by Magdalena van den Berg, et al. Urban Forestry and Urban Green, 2015.
2 “Green Spaces and Cognitive Development in Primary Schoolchildren” Dadvand, Payam; et al. Proceeds of the National Academy of Sciences, May 2015
3 “Access to Green Space, Physical Activity and Mental Health: A Twin Study” Cohen-Cline, et al. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 2015
4 “Humans and Nature: How Knowing and Experiencing Nature Affect Well-being” Russel, Roly; et al. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 2013, Vol. 38
5 “A Systematic Review of Evidence for the Added Benefits to Health of Exposure to Natural Environments” Bowler, Diana, et al. BMC Public Health, 2010, Vol. 10, Issue 456
6 “Would You Be Happier Living in a Greener Urban Area? A Fixed-Effects Analysis of Panel Data” White, Mathew et al.  Psychological Science, 2013, Vol. 24, Issue 6.
7 “Green space, urbanity, and health: how strong is the relation?”, Jolanda Maas, et al. 2019
8 “Global Urbanization and Impact on Health”, Melinda Moore, Philip Gould, Barbara S Keary, 2019
9 “How green spaces benefit mental health”, Gwen Dewar, Ph.D. 2019

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