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Public Green Space Is a Win for Mental Health

Can you even believe it?

by Michael Byrne
Jan 7 2014, 1:30pm
Portland, Ore.'s downtown waterfront/Wikimedia Commons

I told my doctor-slash-therapist a couple of months ago that I was planning on moving to the city (Portland, Oregon) at some point around now, the New Year. Her face dropped, lips pursed, and we decided together that maybe it wouldn't be such a good idea at this very point in time. Compared to this little apartment I live in sandwiched between like three wild parks and a giant river, most cities are barely controlled chaos, a lattice of streets and buildings laid on top of a roiling sea of tumbling, shifting concrete and noise and people.

As a psychological envrironment, a city is not the most condusive to good health. Cities need green space to temper the chaos and, indeed, a new study out in in the journal Environmental Science and Technology suggests that the mental health benefits of urban refuges are very real.

The thing is that it's very easy for cities to not invest in parks because parks and green space are considered secondary benefits compared to everyday urban management toil like picking up trash or providing clean water. The problem is in making the case that green space is in fact in that basic first-line catagory of urban function too. The health of a city is, well, its health.

For its analysis, the study used data from the British Household Panel Survey, a massive project that's been going since 1991. The Survey, what's known as a longitudinal study, is tasked with following a large number households as they age, asking many different questions of participants so that its results can be used for as many different purposes as possible. This is just one of those purposes, and if you follow this sort of research, you'll see the BHPS pop up from time to time. Anyhow, the sample taken by this study looked at about 1,000 different households, and split the segment into halves according to whether the household moved to a more green urban area or a less green urban area.

The study, done by a team based at the University of Exeter, found that on average, the group moving to the greener area experienced a net increase in overall mental health that lasted for up to three years, even after moving again. The group that moved to the less green place experienced a net drop in overall mental health. The researchers adjusted their findings to allow for things like income, employment, and education, as well as varying personality types. Even after the adjustments, green space wins.

"We needed to answer important questions about how the effects of green space vary over time," said the study's co-author Dr Mathew White. "Do people experience a novelty effect, enjoying the new green area after the move, but with the novelty then wearing off? Or do they take time to realise the benefits of their new surroundings as they gradually get to know local parks? What we've found suggests that the mental health benefits of green space are not only immediate, but sustainable over long periods of time."

So what?

Well, mental illness costs everyone money. That's no surprise, but for a long time no one wanted to talk about it. Depression happens to be the largest source of disability worldwide, and disabilities drain cash all over the place. If, by planning cities better, we can take some significant slice off that total, the net result is saving money. And saving happiness, of course.

@everydayelk