On building a park to help a city population’s mental health

With spring in full bloom, there are any number of small annoyances that have entered my life. The pollen that travels in such massive numbers that my white car has a yellow sheen. The grass (or more precisely, green weeds) in my front yard that grow and grow and force me to break out the lawnmower. When I start to get frustrated with this inconveniences, though, I remind myself that all that green may be beneficial for my health.

Psychologists have been considering the possibility that a simple view of nature could provide substantial benefits at least as long as I’ve been alive – that’s when Science published a study showing that surgery patients with a view of a park healed faster than patients with a view of another building. In the decades since the focus has shifted to the potentially subtler yet more pervasive way that green scenes might help us, including the potential that a walk through a park could restore your working memory. There are even claims that “attention deficit disorder” is really “nature deficit disorder“.

Could installing a park enhance everyone's well-being? Photo of Toronto Island garden, by K. Blackwell.

Could installing a park enhance everyone’s well-being? Photo of Toronto Island garden, by K. Blackwell.

However, it’s quite difficult to get a sense of just what kind of real-world impact living near a park or in a generally green neighborhood might have on a person’s life. Partly, this is because people do have some choice where they live, and we have to beware the possibility that they self-selected green or non-green areas for some reason that would explain any differences we found. It’s also very difficult to get a sense of just how much green space can matter; are we talking the kind of subtle mental benefit that only a scientist would notice, or something closer to a real treatment for mental ills?

Stepping into this gap is a recent study making use of the British Household Panel Survey, a national survey that has tracked the same households and individuals from 1991 to 2008. Those individuals were asked several times about their psychological distress (a 12-item questionnaire asking about mental states in the last few weeks, such as whether you’ve felt more unhappy and depressed than usual), and one question that the researchers called well-being, but is more directly life satisfaction: “How dissatisfied or satisfied are you with your life overall?”, with answers ranging from 1 to 7. (I would probably give myself a 5 right now; it is the end of the semester and grading crunch time, after all).

And of course, the researchers knew everyone’s address. This allowed a comparison of where they were living at each interview to what was known about that specific neighborhood (“lower-layer super output layer”, is apparently the correct jargon) and its percentage of “green space” and “gardens”…in 2005. Obviously there’s a potential for neighborhoods to have changed over time; a neighborhood that’s very green now might have been an urban desert in 1991. On the other hand, there’s probably a decent amount of consistency within neighborhoods; Hyde Park is still Hyde Park, after all.

Based on what those neighborhoods looked like in 2005, though, city planners might want to start making plans for more green space and gardens. Living in a neighborhood with more of those predicted more life satisfaction, and less psychological distress. These seem to be independent influences; it’s not that green space reduces mental distress and that lack of distress makes you feel more satisfied in your life. There is a little overlap, but something about that green space contributes to your mental health specifically, and something else contributes to your life satisfaction.

These benefits are relatively small. The survey also included questions about whether individuals were married and employed and what their incomes were, so the researchers could compare what kind of advantage each different demographic gave you. The improvement that being in a borderline above average neighborhood (81% greenery) gave over being in a borderline below average neighborhood (48% greenery) was less dramatic than the benefits that either marriage or employment had on life satisfaction or mental health. Marriage would boost your mental health and life satisfaction three times as much as moving to a greener neighborhood would, and getting a job after being unemployed would boost them 5 or 10 times. So building a park might look like a sad third place option.

But then, there’s not that much a city government can really do to make sure that you get married or have a job, as several years of post-recession economic stimulus and some nations’ schemes to encourage marriage have shown. Putting in green space and gardens is one variable that a city government could absolutely control; you get a more certain return on investment, even if it is a slightly smaller one. Third place also doesn’t seem that bad when you consider that other factors like the neighborhood crime rate and an individual getting a raise or a pay cut didn’t even finish the race, with no detectable influence on psychological health or life satisfaction.

One of the most intriguing claims, though, is that the increase may be small for the individual, but has the potential to reach every individual in the neighborhood. Imagine what happens if we shift your health slightly better, and your neighbor’s, and everyone else on the street. You can call them by their jargon names of “aggregate gains” or “cumulative benefits”, or just think about the potential spreading impact of everyone feeling just a little bit better about their life. Perhaps if everyone is feeling just a little bit better, and a little bit less likely to snap, we’ll see a little more goodwill and neighborhood solidarity. It’s impossible to say scientifically if this would result in “generosity chains” – strings of kindness like hundreds of customers paying for the order of the person behind them in line –  but the possibility might just be worth bringing a little more green to the neighborhood.

White, M., Alcock, I., Wheeler, B., & Depledge, M. (2013). Would you be happier living in a greener urban area? A fixed-effects analysis of panel data. Psychological Science, 24 (6), 920-928 DOI: 10.1177/0956797612464659


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