Urban green spaces and mental health
Depression plagues 1 in 6 adults in the UK with rates still significantly higher than pre-pandemic. It appears that the reintroduction of our former freedoms has done nothing to alleviate the anxiety and depression that descended with the lockdowns. One could argue that with the life-altering scenario the public was confronted with and the economic consequences thereafter, we’ve been forced to reconsider our lifestyles and goals. Many have sought changes to benefit their mental health as well as their physical health, such as exercise and taking walks in nature. However, for those living in built-up areas like cities, it may not be that accessible often requiring a bus ride or lengthy walk to get a glimpse of anything green. This is why urban green spaces should be at the forefront of businesses’ and urban planners’ minds.
The facts about nature, green spaces, and mental health
Nature has been an ever-present and vital part of the human experience since the dawn of time, our entire biology is wired in harmony with it. But as an industrialised species, we close ourselves in with structures of metal and glass, shunning the very thing we adapted to thrive in. Arguably, this alone could be one of the main culprits in the mental health epidemic we now find ourselves in. To use a phrase often used flippantly but instead with the utmost sincerity, maybe it’s time we “touch grass”.
What does nature do for our mental health?
Nature has been proven to:
- Reduce the feelings of anger or stress
- Have a calming or relaxing effect
- Reduces feelings of loneliness
- Inspire a community feeling
- Improves self-esteem and confidence
- Improve your connection with nature
- Enables you to meet new people
- Have a positive effect on cognitive abilities
Why does nature make us feel this way?
It’s suggested that nature has these positive effects because it inspires awe, but this explanation feels a little lacking and mildly unsatisfying. There’s no doubt that it can do, but maybe there’s something more profound outside of the profundity of nature itself, maybe it’s the return to our origins, our natural substrate, the place where we became what we are, and the journey back there is a homecoming of sorts. A realignment perhaps, that helps us square away our existence within the confounding scale of the world at large. Or maybe we just like fresh air, the smell of greenery and flowers, and somewhere quiet to sit and think for a bit.
Where do urban green spaces fit into this?
Urban green spaces are an ideal snapshot of nature to add to the urban landscape, providing a natural refuge to escape from the concrete jungle. The mental health benefits that nature provides are entirely achievable in these green spaces and can be as large or as small as the available space allows for. Through clever design choices and, the right street furniture including seating and planters, there are no limitations as to where they can reside.
What green credentials do urban green spaces have?
With the current focus on cleaner air, there is no better way of achieving this than with greenery such as trees, shrubs, and plants. A study conducted in Strasbourg between 2012 and 2013 showed a reduction in PM10 (particulate matter measuring ten microns or less) by 7%.
It’s important to remember that not all green spaces are created equal and different trees, shrubs, and greenery will perform better or worse depending on the environment they’re placed in.
So far, we have an increase in mental well-being for those in and around the green spaces and cleaner air as a biproduct, but what else do urban green spaces have to offer?
They can reduce the UHI (urban heat island) effect. Urban green spaces have been proven to lower the local temperature by as much as 5 degrees Celsius. This makes them a vital tool in reducing urban heat island effects and providing comfort during heat waves and in the summer months. This cooling effect is owed to the absorption of solar radiation and the water vapour that is subsequently released.
Urban green spaces are also fantastic for wildlife, birds, and pollinators in particular. Green spaces are a great way of providing nesting and feeding spaces for our feathered friends, allowing them to live fruitfully in tandem with ourselves. An increase in space for habitats, as well as shrubs, flowers, and other plant life, enables bees and insects to go about their business pollinating. This is vitally important, especially in the case of bees as their populations have been decreasing at an alarming rate. As we’ve all been told many times, bees and other pollinators are a vital part of the ecosystem, pollinating fruit and vegetables that only grow as a result of their pollination.
The aesthetic effect of urban green spaces
The green credentials are undeniable and the accompanying mental health benefits are certainly nothing to be sniffed at, outside of these very important factors they just look very aesthetically pleasing. Urban green spaces offer a raft of opportunities to brighten up a dull street, cityscape, or even rooftop. With the right layout, furniture, planters, features, plants, shrubs, or trees, these spaces quickly transform the grey and dreary into an inviting hub of activity. They’re prone to becoming landmarks by which people navigate the town or city and can serve as a meeting place. This is great news for nearby pubs, bars, restaurants, and shops as more footfall inevitably leads to more business.
The presence of a green space in and of itself is enough to make a street or area more inviting, whether that’s because of plenty of canopy cover on a hot day or just because it’s so unlike everywhere else in the local vicinity. If you’re confronted with a street punctuated with greenery or a small communal garden on the way, and a street with the same concrete tiles and brick buildings that you pass so often it’s unremarkable, which street are you more likely to journey through?
Green spaces don’t just have to be self-contained areas, they can be routes for people to pass through and are a much more appealing way of directing foot traffic.
The business case for green spaces
Green spaces don’t just have to exist in the public realm, they can be harnessed by businesses alike. The mental health issues that are so prevalent in domestic life don’t lie dormant in the business world, in fact, we often see afflictions like stress and anxiety exacerbated by work life. We’re often hearing about how people burn out due to long hours and increased pressure in the workplace and while nothing is a substitute for properly alleviating the root causes of these issues, green spaces can help lighten the load. In some lines of work stress and pressured situations are inevitable, particularly in the case of emergency service workers, and when we do something to alleviate that stress and pressure, we all benefit.
The benefits mentioned earlier directly apply to those working in offices, with the increase in cognitive function and stress reduction being key points for those businesses that have their staff’s well-being and productivity in mind. A happier and healthier staff leads to a more productive staff, which leads to a happier and more productive environment, which in turn leads to happier customers and end users. Much like most of life, this effect exists in a cycle that creates a compounding effect, each time reinforcing itself to create a happier, healthier environment.
More downstream effects of green spaces in business include increased staff retention and acquisition. No one wants to leave a business where they’re happy working and no one wants to join a business where the staff are miserable. The added greenery and time to experience nature while at work are also great selling points, especially for the generation entering the workforce that has been shown to consistently value incentives from employers that aren’t solely material.
So, in conclusion, a happier healthier workforce that doesn’t want to leave, applications flooding in, and happy, satisfied customers, what’s not to love?
Green spaces are something for everyone
Whether it’s in our public life, business life, or personal life, we all need some nature to help rebalance the scales and put ourselves in a healthy state of mind. To quote the WHO (World Health Organisation) “Health is a state of complete physical and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”, just because there may not be an obvious issue doesn’t mean we can’t do with the boost that nature provides.
Twin the mental health benefits with the environmental credentials green spaces boast and you have yourself a no-brainer. They’re great for people, the planet, businesses, wildlife, and the streetscape. Green spaces can be however large or small as the space allows for and they don’t have to break the bank.
To find out more, or for help and advice on how to kit out your green space, email us at email@example.com or give us a call on 01686 689 198.