We may be modern individuals living in civilized cities, but we are still creatures of nature at heart. So, how does greenery play a part in our mental well-being? Why do we seem to decompress when in contact with vegetation? Why should we integrate wildlife into everyday city life? An award-winning expert in the urbanism field is here to answer exactly these questions.
Biophilia – an instinctive human desire to connect to nature. Such a simple concept, yet the connection severely affects our physical and mental wellbeing.
“The presence, or the absence, of nature has a strong effect on our general psychological state,”
explains Tony Matthews, an award-winning Urban and Environmental Planner and a lecturer at the Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. During our conversation, he informed us on why and how green areas in cities affect our mental well-being – the truth: vegetation impacts us even more than we realise.
The Psychological Benefits of Green Areas
We’re creatures of nature. Therefore, cities with more greenery like trees, parks, plants, and flowers tend to have happier residents. With fewer green areas, citizens are less inclined to walk, they become heavier, sicker, and sadder, resulting in bad public health. “If you think about a city as part of the psychological environment, then one of the things that help good psychological and good mental health outcomes is lots of greenery,” Tony informs us. The importance of greenery on our psychological state can’t be denied and is becoming “increasingly understood and accepted.”
But why exactly is that? Why are we starting to emphasise the connection between greenery and good mental health? Well, for starters, green areas in cities have proven, among others, to hold these gains for us:
Greenery gives people a venue to socialise without any commercial arrangement. Sure, you can meet your friends at a café or a restaurant, but you can only be there as long as you’re paying to be there; whereas in a park, you can stay for however long you want, you can relax, meet many people, and socialise as much as you want.
Places like these are defined as ‘third places’ in sociology: “a place where you have a lot of social encounters. It can be a public park, it can be a dog park, it can be a farmers’ market. Fundamentally, it’s a place where social, not commercial, activity is the primary reason for being there,” explains Tony, “green spaces then become a form of a third place, because they’re primarily there for socialisation, recreation, and people.” And we perceive them as such, as places with the absence of commercial transaction and presence of nature instead, eliminating the feeling of owning something.
“Loneliness is probably the largest form of poor mental health in cities. There is a huge number of people living in cities all around the world that are extremely lonely,” Tony says, continuing, “if you don’t have good third places where people can go and have a social experience, you’re losing a significant opportunity to do something about that loneliness.”
Loneliness can facilitate depression and suicide, cardiovascular diseases, stress, antisocial behaviour, alcoholism and drug abuse, Alzheimer’s disease, etc. Research finds that loneliness increases the risk of mortality by 26%.
Third places enable people to socialise, spend quality time together, and consequently eliminate that lonely feeling and illnesses connected with it.
Socialising brings about another positive effect: caring about the environment you’re in. “When you’re in a space where you’re meeting people, you’re socially engaged and you’re active, you start to develop a greater place attachment; you care more about the place,” he states. And since it’s in our nature to want the things we care about to do well, residents then want to look after and protect their environment and are more inclined to incorporate positive changes to it.
This links to the idea of social cohesion, a feeling of belonging to a group, being a part of something. Groups satisfy our need to belong: they help us define who we are individually and as parts of society. This eventually builds up to an altogether positive effect. “Social cohesion is the difference between knowing who your neighbours are and being friends with them, or not knowing them,” says Tony.
“If you have good social cohesion, if you’re well connected to social networks and places, particularly third places, your mental health improves.”
Better Sense of Connection with Wildlife
Any low-level interaction with wildlife, even just feeding the ducks, produces a huge number of benefits. It makes us feel connected to the environment.
However, this connection is not created with animals only; we also tend to respond to plants on an almost subconscious level. Healthy trees make us feel good and happy – watching them grow, seeing the colours of their leaves change, etc., all add up to “an improved individual and social experience,” Tony claims.
“We decompress and recharge better in nature than we do in other spaces.” Look at yourself, for example: if you’re having a particularly busy and stressful day, a break in the park is going to leave you feeling more refreshed and energised than staying at the office (or home – as it’s the popular case recently).
A vast number of studies out there have proven time and time again that spending time in green areas reduces stress levels and improves general mood. Natural environments stimulate involuntary attention, and therefore reduce the need for directed attention – simply, diverting our brains from maintaining focus on a specific task.
Not only that, green areas also reduce the risk of developing mental health problems connected to living in cities. Such problems include mood disorders, anxiety, and schizophrenia.
Recovery time in hospitals is much quicker if the patients can see nature outside of their windows, “and that’s partially because of the mental effects of nature,” Tony highlights. Enjoyment of vegetation lowers stress levels and encourages natural healing.
In fact, one of Tony’s current research projects is concerned with the usage of green infrastructure in aged care facilities. Despite elderly people becoming more active, they are by default still more vulnerable to climate than younger generations. They tend to move slower, so they need more shade, more places to sit down, to rest and talk. They need fresh air and a chance to warm up in the sun. Sitting outside in the sun and staying connected to vegetation improves their physical health, social profiles, and overall mental well-being.
When it comes to children, it’s even more important to protect their growing minds and brains. According to research conducted by McGraw-Hill Construction, green schools and classrooms provide better acoustics, lighting, and thermal comfort, all adding up to better grades and performance as well as improved health and prosperity.
One of the growing trends in Australia right now, Tony points out, are the new vertical schools – but the question of being in contact with nature arises. Where can pupils not only see but also access greenery? Where are the students going to run around during their lunch break, and where is the PE going to take place? “And that’s a huge problem,” he argues.
A Tree a Day Keeps the Doctor Away
“We are creatures of nature, we are fundamentally connected to nature, and we suffer from its absence.”
The reason why nature has such an impact on us is simple enough to Tony: “we came from nature. We’ve been living in cities for 6000 years, but we were living in nature for hundreds of thousands of years.”
Per Tony’s words, ideally each citizen should always be within 400 metres of some sort of green space, and the city should have as many street trees as possible. The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 9 m2 of green space per individual.
If we look at India, for example, it’s one of the least green countries (its capital having merely 1.8 m2 of green space per capita), and is simultaneously one of the most affected countries by anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. In contrast, Oslo has, with its green spaces covering 68% of the city, the highest percentage of public green areas in a city in the world, ranking Norway as one of ‘the happiest countries in the year 2020’.
Regarding the time spent in green areas, it depends on the individual. It doesn’t necessarily need to be long, it just needs to be regular.
This is the ideal case, in reality, however, it’s a different story. There’s just not enough space for every group to use it in their best interest. Since much of the urban land is in private ownership, the government doesn’t really have much control over it. And when the land is public, maintenance and insurance issues rise to the surface – who’s going to ensure the quality of green areas, and who’s going to claim responsibility if something goes wrong?
City councils don’t want additional costs for upkeeping, and insurance companies don’t want to be financially liable for potential accidents. It’s a vicious circle: in the short run, green areas require bigger monetary investments, but without greenery, in the long run, public health bills are likely to be bigger.
On average, the costs of mental illnesses in Europe amount to 600 billion euro, including 190 billion for financing direct care, 170 billion for social security programmes, and 260 billion euro for unemployment and reduced productivity of people affected by mental illnesses.
Rising Green Awareness
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. All the psychological benefits undoubtedly contribute to the rising understanding and recognition of the importance of green areas. “The general awareness that greenery is good and should be prioritised is growing within the group of people who are involved in making decisions about cities – city planners, architects, policymakers, engineers, property developers, urban designers,” claims Tony, further adding “urban greenery space has gone from being a very general thing to something that’s really quite focused on now.”
Psychology of Greenery in Cities in a Nutshell
Undoubtedly, green areas are an indispensable part of any city’s infrastructure. In the era where mental disorders are becoming more and more recognised, it’s time to pay attention to what has the ability to reduce, if not eliminate, them. Greenery not only lowers stress levels, connects us to nature, and helps us live healthier, but it also impacts the development of further generations.
Luckily, people seem to start seeing, understanding, and accepting these advantages and are more inclined to treat greenery as a serious form of infrastructure – and that’s the first step in the right direction. Next is turning that knowledge into practice.