It has been found that as high as one in four people are suffering from mental health issues at any one time (Natural England, 2016). We are firm believers that interacting with nature has restorative effects for mental health and wellbeing, particularly in the city. For Mental Health Awareness Week we explain why access to green space is vital for health and happiness. 

 

Anxiety and depression rank as the most common mental disorders in the UK. Those with the illness can feel isolated and struggle with simple activities. Whilst each case is unique, and may have multiple causes, getting out into nature can provide some relief. In dense urban environments limited access to green space can compound the problems, particularly if the urban space in question is dominated with large groups of people. 

The restorative effects of green space is explored by Kaplan and Kaplan, who note that nature provides ‘soft fascinations’ which occupy passive thoughts with little effort. This is most clearly demonstrated by looking up at passing clouds or moving water, and noting, how, after a while you thoughts can clear. There are good arguments that we are hardwired to be receptive to the environment, as part of our environment. By having a passive part of our minds focusing on the environment around us we could keep an eye on creatures that wish to do us harm. 

One of the most famous studies was that of Ulrich (1984), who found patients with a window view of trees and nature recovered more quickly than those who did not. Subsequently, there has been an increase in ‘green prescription’ been issued, advice to engage with nature, whether it be taking regular walks in parks or gardening in an allotment. In some parts of Europe this idea is taken further and patients suffering with depression are sent to spend time in a nature retreat for a period of time. Green spaces can also create a more welcoming and vibrant environment for those suffering with anxiety. These results prove that gardens, parks and trees increase positive attitudes and overall life satisfaction.

 

Green space can also help people who do suffer from stress. Stress and our environment are strongly associated, in our ancestors it was a suggestion that we should move away from the area we’re currently in. Today, it is more likely to be caused by personal issues such as work or family. There are suggestions that our urban environments increase levels of cortisol (a hormone which is realised in response to stress). Our bodies judge environments full of noisy cars as a threat and trigger feelings of stress. In a recent study led by the University of Edinburgh, groups of people were measured for levels of cortisol in their saliva, indicating on a hormone level, how stressed they were. The report discovered that the participant’s stress level was directly linked to the amount of green space that were in their direct surrounding, suggesting that the more green space that surrounds them the less stressed a person is likely to be.

 

There are, of course, many factors that could be contributing to green space having a positive impact on mental health. Access to green space such as parks also provide social opportunities (even if it is just people watching), better air quality, as well as free opportunities to exercise. Living in built up urban areas without greenery can feel claustrophobic and often discourage physical activity. However, even the additional street trees have been found to encourage a more active lifestyle. It is commonly known that exercise produces endorphins, and thus green space in this instance indirectly improves mental health.

 

Exposure to green space can become equally valuable if it is at a scale in which promotes exercise  and other recreational activities such as active participation in horticulture. Horticultural therapy (check out such charities such as Thrive) has been shown to ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety by providing opportunities to improve confidence and learning a new skill. Most gardeners will tell you the positive feelings they experience just by planting, and most reports suggest this is evident even in those who are not green fingered.

 

The concept that green spaces improve our mental health is now a widely researched topic. For city dwellers, green spaces are even more important, as it reduces urban stress, provides space for tranquility and an escape from the hustle and bustle.

 

If you have a space that could be transformed to improve your urban environment, please get in contact > This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.