Even if you live in a city, you can get health benefits from nature | Popular Science
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Even if you live in a city, you can get health benefits from nature

Visiting city parks can give your health a boost, but not all green spaces are created equal

path through park

The Meadows, an urban park in Edinburgh.

Catharine Ward Thompson / © OPENspace research centre

Toward the end of the 18th Century, a pastime known as sea bathing took Britain by storm. People would climb into wooden contraptions called bathing machines, allow themselves to be wheeled into the water, and then plunge into the ocean. These dips weren’t just fashionable; the bracing seawater was thought to be good for the constitution. Establishments such as the Royal Sea Bathing Hospital at Margate offered sea bathing as a treatment for ailments such as scrofula, a form of tuberculosis.

Alas, it turns out that seawater cannot actually cure you of disease…but those bygone physicians were onto something. We now know that spending time near water and other natural settings brings significant boons to our health. In fact, coastal communities are more likely to report that they are healthy than similar inland neighborhoods.

But what about those of us who aren’t surrounded by rivers, beaches, mountains, or forests? How much contact with nature do people who live in cities, where trees and wildlife are pushed to the margins, need? And how can we get it?

“We’ve been thinking about relationships between nature and health and wellbeing for hundreds—probably thousands—of years,” says Ben Wheeler, a researcher at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter Medical School in England, and a coauthor of the study on coastal communities. Still, “we’re only just scraping the surface of understanding what’s going on with that relationship.”

These days, our doctor can’t just write us a prescription for sea bathing. However, Wheeler and other scientists are starting to probe what kinds of nature our bodies need and how often we should be visiting it. Our cities have a long way to go before they become green havens, but the good news is reconnecting with nature doesn’t have to be complicated, and even urban parks can give our wellbeing an important boost.

Complex ties

When you step into a lush city park, it can feel a world apart from the paved streets outside. Around you might be streams, trees, or expanses of open grass. Street noise is muffled, replaced by gentle trills of birdsong or the wind in the leaves. All of these features influence our health in profound ways.

In cities, greenery protects us by absorbing pollution and cutting down on the heat island effect. Contact with nature also eases our stress, perhaps because it offers us calming scenery like trees and brooks as well as an oasis from our daily worries and from nuisances like sirens or construction noise. We “can get away from home or get away from stress at work…and be in a place where we can switch off from those demands,” says Catharine Ward Thompson, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Nature also restores our ability to focus, which gets drained when we have to concentrate at work, navigate busy streets, and deal with other everyday demands on our attention. When we allow ourselves to become entranced by the sights, sounds, or smells of nature, our minds have a chance to rest and bounce back from this fatigue. “The pattern of light in leaves or on the forest floor, or waves coming to the shore, or bees dancing on flowers—all of those things engage us,” Ward Thompson says. “They’re interesting to watch, but we don’t have to make any effort.”

And as we replenish our mental reserves, we become less irritable, less impulsive, and less likely to make mistakes, says William Sullivan, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “People are kind of their better selves in many ways when they have greater contact with urban green spaces,” he says.

Visiting a park, forest, or lake also encourages us to get more exercise; nearly all of us become more active when we’re outside, Ward Thompson points out. In fact, time seems to zip by more quickly when we’re exercising with a view of the shore, which might spur us to keep working out longer even when we’re indoors. And when we do get out and enjoy the fresh air, we also come into contact with bacteria that are important for a healthy microbiome—which, among other things, helps us control our stress and build a stronger immune system, Ward Thompson says.

Nowadays, people have begun to look for ways to tap into these restorative properties more effectively. Among them is the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. It involves taking leisurely, meandering strolls through nature while drinking in the scenery. There’s evidence that these excursions may calm our heart rate, lower stress hormones and blood pressure, and boost levels of cancer-fighting proteins in the immune system.

“Those are physiological responses that our bodies make without us being consciously aware of them,” Ward Thompson says. “That suggests that there are some aspects [of nature] that are good for us all.”

Fortunately for city mice, urban-dwellers don’t have to be in the heart of a forest to awaken some of these responses. Simply living in more verdant neighborhoods has been linked with a lower risk of dying from common ailments like cardiovascular and respiratory disease amongst city dwellers. Wheeler and his team have seen that people who move to these greener neighborhoods also enjoy better mental health than when they lived in more densely built settings.

Different strokes

All of this means that having nature around our neighborhoods, schools, or office buildings is no mere luxury, Sullivan says. “Many Americans think of green spaces in your neighborhood or a higher level of street trees as kind of nice but certainly trivial,” he says. “But…green spaces are a necessary component of the healthy human habitat.”

What’s less certain is exactly how much nature people need close by to create this vital habitat.

For some city residents, having greenery within easy reach might be more important than for others. Living near parks or water may have the strongest impact on the health of people in poor communities, Wheeler says. This is probably because folks with more money aren’t as reliant on their neighborhood to get their share of nature; they might be able to spend a weekend camping or visiting the coast.

We may also respond to nature differently depending on our past history with it, Ward Thompson says. It’s possible that if you grew up playing amongst the greenery, you will relax more quickly than other people when you head back to nature as an adult. “If as a child we haven’t had that experience, we might think, ‘Why would I go to a park if I’m feeling stressed out? That’s not going to help me,’” Ward Thompson says. So while all kinds of people will benefit from nature, she says, these benefits might not be identical for everyone.

The gains we get from a trip to nature also depend on our age and mobility, Ward Thompson says. An elderly person might find a sojourn in the park rejuvenating but be unable to trek over uneven ground with her walker. “You may have a fantastic park nearby, but you may not feel confident to get to it without worrying about falling over,” Ward Thompson says. Another person might want a wilder patch of nature to explore, while a group of teenagers might be most likely to visit parks with a big open field where they can kick a ball around.

“There’s not one type of space that is perfect for everybody all the time in all circumstances,” Ward Thompson says.

Getting your fill

Your neighborhood park might not be perfect, but there are certain features that can make it a better place for you to connect with nature. Having some tree canopy overhead is critical, Sullivan says; a mere stretch of turf grass isn’t enough to improve our wellbeing. Location is also key. Ideally, a city’s residents should have a green space at least a couple acres in size within a five-minute walk of their home, the World Health Organization has said.

A park won’t do your health any good if you never visit it, which is why amenities like restrooms, benches, and entrances that are accessible for wheelchairs and strollers are important as well. Ward Thompson has been working with the Forestry Commission in Scotland to make woodlands more welcoming, and has found that people seem to use them more after these facilities have been added

You also won’t get the full benefit from your local park if you don’t open your senses to it, Sullivan says. He and his colleagues have been running an experiment in which they put people through a grueling battery of tasks that include impromptu speechmaking and arithmetic problems, then allow them to take a break in a lush corner of the University of Illinois campus or a paved courtyard without any vegetation. People who spend time in the more natural environment recover their ability to focus significantly more quickly than the others…but only if they leave their gadgets inside. Those who spend the break glued to their phones don’t return mentally refreshed, nature or no.

“Not only do we need to create green spaces, but they need to be compelling enough to pull people’s attention away from their cellphones,” Sullivan says. That means a park should be furnished with a variety of intriguing features like flowers, butterfly gardens, or moving water to draw our notice.

window in office

“Having a view out your office window of a completely built space does not help you recover from the mental fatigue that is built into our daily lives,” says William Sullivan.

William Sullivan

Your own habits matter too; it’s important to make sure you visit your park as often as possible. When people in the United Kingdom were surveyed about their relationship with nature, those who had contact with green spaces regularly reported a stronger feeling that their lives were worthwhile and meaningful than others. In fact, Wheeler and his team discovered, weekly excursions to nature provided a boost to people’s wellbeing similar to that of being married (which generally makes people happier in the long run). People also reported feeling happier if they’d just visited nature the previous day. We don’t have to spend a lot of time in distant wildernesses to enjoy the health benefits of nature, the team concluded.

That said, there may indeed be something special about the experience of heading into wilder lands. “There’s not many urban parks where you might get that sense of awe that you might [feel] if you were in the Grand Canyon or a massive forest park or a mountain,” Wheeler says. The psychological benefits we might get from these moments are mostly a mystery. However, researchers have discovered that feelings of awe spur us to be more generous, and that even videos of nature can stir up this impulse.

In developed western countries, it’s likely that the more detached from urban life our surroundings feel, the more we will relax, Ward Thompson says. In this respect as well, the wilderness may be particularly rejuvenating—but it’s not the only way to create a feeling of separation. “If you can get a sense of being away from the city, even if it’s psychological rather than literal, I think that can be restorative,” Ward Thompson says. “You can have…very small parks that can do lots of good things for us.”

For city dwellers, then, the health benefits of nature are within our reach, if we make a point of seeking them out and immersing ourselves fully in the moment. “I think you can get enough if you think of it purposely and then search for places that are green,” Sullivan says.

Going greener

But we shouldn’t have to make a conscious effort to get our fill of nature, in Sullivan’s view. In the future, he says, our cities may be filled with greenery.

“Parks are not enough,” Sullivan says. “We need nature at every doorstep.” That means that every window in our apartments and offices should overlook some vegetation or water—that when we step onto the street, we are surrounded by flowers and trees as well as cement and glass. Filling our cities with street trees, green roofs, and rain gardens and bioswales to capture rainwater would go a long way towards giving most people daily contact with nature, Sullivan says. “You want to weave it into people’s everyday lives so they don’t have to plan a trip to a park some distance from their home.”

The rise of driverless cars could help make this vision possible, he believes. In the coming decades, driverless cars will mostly belong to shared fleets. So fewer people will own cars, and those cars we do use will be able to park themselves in more compact lots. This could free up a lot of space that could be colonized by vegetation.

“We’re going to have a really significant opportunity to redesign urban spaces to be nature-rich,” Sullivan says. “That will reduce flooding and reduce the urban heat island effect and improve air quality and store much more carbon than we’re currently storing in cities—and in doing so reap all these other cool benefits for human health and wellbeing.”

But will we seize this chance to transform our cities? There are certainly initiatives already underway to make our cities greener, such as the High Line, the onetime railway that has been revamped into an elevated park in New York. Ward Thompson is less certain whether cities will invest in more far-reaching efforts. “But we know that cities to be successful want to attract the brightest of people to come and live and work in their communities,” she says. Given the choice, these people won’t want to move into cities that don’t have access to green environments.

Whether cities will find the motivation to swath themselves in greenery remains to be seen. But as we become ever more aware of the pivotal role that nature can play in our health, Ward Thompson says, it’s not beyond the ingenuity of humankind to find ways to infuse nature into even the densest metropolises.

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