In recent years, city planners took a step back after the industrial revolution steamrolled urban planning for over a century and realized, ‘Oh wait, all the nature we took away was actually helping our health’. Turns out, encounters with nature (trees and greenery in the simplest form) have mental health benefits, cognitive benefits, promote physical activity, and go a long way for creating a sense of belonging in a community (also promotes social support). So when you hear people say they feel refreshed and rejuvenated after having access to nature, its not just their imagination! Their bodies actually have had physiological benefits from being in nature.
Is this a health issue that you have seen in mainstream health news?
Your brain on nature: The mental health benefits are a-plenty. Experiencing nature helps restore mental fatigue from work, school, and life stress. You are able to focus better, and it helps you retain information you have learned. When there are plants in office spaces, or in school settings, there is evidence that workplace morale is increased, and efficiency in the workplace is enhanced. Additionally, less workers/students take sick days and are less frustrated. Adults who have regular access to nature, have fewer incidents of Alzheimer’s and Dementia later in life, and are less likely to be depressed.
Access to greenery is also extremely important for kids. It helps them develop identity, creativity, and independence. It also facilitates productive play with their friends. Kids that have access to nature have fewer behavioral problems (ADD/ADHD), and have better cognitive functioning. This helps problem-solving skills, and cognitive performance.
Being active around nature: Access to nature not only increases the willingness to be active, but has more health benefits than running on a treadmill. The green environment has more restorative effects than indoor settings, and provides options to be active for those who are not able to afford a gym membership. Physical activity in nature also provides increased mental health benefits (increased nerve growth in your hippocampus occurs– a central part of your brain for memory formation and recall).
Social connections and nature: A neighborhood that has access to green spaces increases the social support and interactions within the community. This results in mental health benefits, and a sense of safety and trust in your community. Green spaces encourage social contact by serving as informal meeting places for group activities. This helps decrease loneliness, and social isolation which are related to numerous health detriments. Community gardens, shade trees, and parks all are examples of ways nature has been brought to the neighborhood.
Which is great right? Yes it is. But you may begin to see a trend here with other topics I’ve covered. Who are the people that are benefitting from ‘urban greening’? (Urban greening is the official term for bringing nature into the city.) Largely, Caucasian, affluent populations. Who already have the best health in the nation. So again these benefits are just increasing the health of the healthiest people. Which is not equitable by any means. Most low-income families reside in Superfund sites, or close to industrial facilities that not only lack urban greenery, but actually have lowered air quality, and water quality compared to other locations in cities. Some efforts to increase green spaces in low-income communities had good intentions, but actually resulted in an even worse problem – environmental gentrification. The result is quite the balancing act. What happened when these green initiatives went in to clean up low-income neighborhoods was they did just that. The clean-up made communities more appealing, which drove up the cost of living, and forced those low-income families to relocate (because they couldn’t afford the cost increase) to even worse living conditions. This is what is considered environmental gentrification.
To address this issue, Jennifer Wolch and collegues at UC Berkeley introduced the idea of ‘Just Green Enough’. The idea with this is to still work on improving green spaces in low-income neighborhoods, but to find the fine line where residents will experience the health benefits, but won’t be forced out by more wealthy counterparts. These improvements are largely led by community activists, who know their community better than anyone else. They have been important for designing solutions that will in fact benefit the residents in the community.
But this kind of goal takes time, patience, and a resilient attitude. It is important work, but is not being done nearly enough. (Only a few cases exist). Introducing green space goes so much farther than just providing something nice to look at. In these low-income neighborhoods the introduction of green space helps to reduce crime and violence, and helps the community to become more close-knit (in addition to all the physical/mental health benefits). This kind of empowerment is necessary, as we are in some scary times facing an uphill battle against governmental policy, and large differences in power in our society. I’m in no way saying that everyone should have everything given to them, but everyone should have an equal opportunity to make their life what they want. Being healthy, having safe air/water, safe places to live, and access to nature should not be a privilege of the rich and white, but they largely are. And these huge disparities between basic living necessities and health necessities (not to mention access and power) in the U.S. is simply not sustainable.
But as I again find myself tip-toeing towards a political realm, I will leave you with some resources to learn more, or start engaging your own community to push for health equity.
Everyday Colorado Community Engagement tool: http://www.everydayco.org/your-values