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The Joy of Nature: Can Designing Green Urban Spaces Improve Mental Health?

Amie Haven

Amie Haven, Journalist

Nature may not be a miracle cure for mental illness, but evidence suggests a link that urban designers are not ignoring.

Many people intuitively understand that the beauty of nature lifts the spirit, soothes the soul, and clears a troubled mind. But in urban spaces, access to nature and all its benefits can be limited. Plus, nature’s long-term benefits for mental health are proving hard to quantify, making it challenging to present urban design and health policymakers with clear facts. 

Yet mounting research suggests there’s a correlation between actively engaging with nature and improved mental health. Inspired by this tentative correlation, projects are springing up across the UK and internationally to increase access to nature, particularly in urban environments where green spaces are rare.

Poor mental health is a global problem. According to the Mental Health Foundation, depression is the second leading cause of disability worldwide and 1 in 6 people experience common mental health problems every week. The mental health charity Mind say there are a range of factors that contribute to poor mental health: childhood trauma, poverty, loss, stress, poor physical health, social isolation, discrimination, inadequate housing, abuse, trauma in adulthood, drug and alcohol abuse, long-term caring responsibilities, physical injury, and neurological conditions. 

There is no single way to tackle such a complex array of often interrelated issues. But a recent study revealed that spending just 120 minutes a week in nature results in health and wellbeing benefits. However, the study didn’t pull apart the impact of nature as distinct from just physical activity, which has also been shown to improve mental health. Another study pointed out that exposure to nature is a correlating factor in many studies but no evidence demonstrates nature’s stand-alone benefits.

Despite the lack of hard evidence, the World Health Organization (WHO) says that, “Having access to green spaces can reduce health inequalities, improve well-being, and aid in treatment of mental illness. Some analysis suggests that physical activity in a natural environment can help remedy mild depression and reduce physiological stress indicators.”

Nature writer Robert Macfarlane appears to agree with this assessment after enthusiastically backing London as a National Park City – the first city in the world to receive the honour. Macfarlane says

“What a moment for London: a celebration of the biodiversity and greenness that the city holds, an acknowledgement of how vitally urban lives are bound up with, and enriched by, nature. It’s a vision for the future of how to deepen and improve our relationship with the living world; for what’s good for nature is also good for us all.”

Director of Urban Alliance, Russell Galt, also shares this sentiment. Speaking to Gizmodo, Galt said, “It’s only in the past 10,000 years – a blip in the evolutionary history of humans – that we have begun isolating ourselves from nature. Physiologically and psychologically, we are still hardwired to the wilderness.”

We may not be able to explain exactly how or why nature soothes the soul, but it seems the call of the wild may be an organic part of being human. However, the authors of a study conducted in 2016 argue that the link between nature and wellbeing has been sufficiently proven to make it a serious policy concern. The Wildlife Trusts and the University of Derby evaluated the results of the “30 Days Wild” nature engagement campaign in 2016. One of the authors, Lucy McRobert from The Wildlife Trusts, told the BBC that participants who reported “excellent” health rose by 30% following 30 days of engaging with nature. According to The Wildlife Trusts, natural environments are: 

“[…] fundamentally important for our health, wellbeing and happiness and that ought to be reflected in our education system, in the way we treat the physically or mentally ill, in the way we build infrastructure and houses and in how we access and protect green spaces in cities.”

Along these lines, organisations like Living Space Project are working to ensure that green urban spaces are not only protected but are equitable and inclusive. Founder Maria Adebowale-Schwarte believes that entire communities need to be involved in green urban design so that the benefits of nature can be shared by all. Living Space Project supports young people in London, Berlin, and Amsterdam to become part of the decision-making and design process for inclusive environments and access to green spaces.

But encouraging busy urbanites to take advantage of natural environments can be a challenge. Landscape architecture practice Grant Associates show how nature can be made mobile and appeal to the whole family with their annual pop-up event in Bath, Forest of Imagination. Appearing in different places across the city each year since 2014, the Forest of Imagination is a 4-day art event that transforms the landscape into a magical world of nature and creativity. The event includes magical trails, interactive installations, and hands-on workshops. Although only temporary, such events may help to reinforce a connection to nature in urban environments by encouraging families to utilise green urban spaces.

Grant Associates were also behind the Gardens at the Bay design in Singapore. The design includes 18 futuristic Supertrees set within a biodiverse landscape of flora and fauna. And the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest conservatories house endangered species of plants offset by lush waterfalls. The design shows how nature, urban life, and futuristic thinking can merge into a spectacular phenomenon for all to explore and enjoy. 

As Lucy McRobert of The Wildlife Trusts told the BBC, “Nature isn’t a miracle cure for diseases. But by interacting with it, spending time in it, experiencing it and appreciating it we can reap the benefits of feeling happier and healthier as a result.” Contact with nature is one of many factors that may improve mental health by increasing a sense of wellbeing. It seems that nature can serve as a complementary function in urban design for healthier living and improved mental health.

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