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How nature can promote good mental health in cities

Academics have built a conceptual model that can be used to make meaningful and informed decisions about how environmental projects may impact mental health.

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Nature can reduce risk factors for some types of mental illness
Nature can reduce risk factors for some types of mental illness

An international collaboration has created a framework for how city planners can measure the mental health benefits of nature and incorporate those into plans and policies for cities and their residents.

 

The study brought together more than two dozen leading experts in the natural, social and health sciences who study aspects of how nature can benefit human wellbeing.

 

Benefits of nature

 

The international research team was led by the University of Washington (UW) and Stanford University.

 

According to the universities, interacting with nature is starting to be recognised as one way to improve mental health. Several scientific studies have shown that nature experiences may benefit people’s psychological wellbeing and cognitive function.

 

But they note it has been difficult to find ways to quantify these benefits in a useful manner for cities or organisations that want to integrate nature to improve mental health.

 

“Thinking about the direct mental health benefits that nature contact provides is important to take into account when planning how to conserve nature and integrate it into our cities,” said Greg Bratman, lead author and an assistant professor at the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

 

“The purpose of this paper is to provide a conceptual model of one way we can start to think about doing this.”

 

The first step for the team was to establish a baseline, collective agreement regarding the understanding of the impacts of nature experience on aspects of cognitive functioning, emotional wellbeing and other dimensions of mental health.

“Thinking about the direct mental health benefits that nature contact provides is important to take into account when planning how to conserve nature and integrate it into our cities”

While this line of study is still emerging, experts agree that nature can reduce risk factors for some types of mental illnesses and improve psychological wellbeing.

 

They also agree that opportunities for nature experiences are dwindling for many people around the world because of urban growth.

 

The study sets out to outline how city planners, landscape architects, developers and others could eventually anticipate the mental health impacts of decisions related to the environment.

 

The universities point out many governments already consider this with regards to other aspects of human health. For example, trees are planted in cities to improve air quality or reduce urban heat island effects, and parks are built in specific neighbourhoods to encourage physical activity.

 

But these actions don’t usually directly factor in the mental health benefits that trees or a restored park might provide, they note.

 

“We have entered the urban century, with two-thirds of humanity projected to be living in cities by 2050. At the same time, there is an awakening underway today, to the many values of nature and the risks and costs of its loss,” added Gretchen Daily, faculty director at the Stanford Natural Capital Project, and leading author.

 

“This new work can help inform investments in livability and sustainability of the world’s cities.”

The research team built a conceptual model that can be used to make meaningful, informed decisions about environmental projects and how they may impact mental health.

 

It includes four steps for planners to consider:

  • elements of nature included in a project, say at a school or across the whole city;
  • the amount of contact people will have with nature;
  • how people interact with nature;
  • and how people may benefit from those interactions, based on the latest scientific evidence.

Underserved communities

 

The researchers said they hope this tool will be especially useful in considering the possible mental health repercussions of adding – or taking away – nature in underserved communities.

 

“If the evidence shows that nature contact helps to buffer against negative impacts from other environmental predictors of health, then access to these landscapes can be considered a matter of environmental justice. We hope this framework will contribute to this discussion,” continued Bratman.

 

“Eventually, it could be developed and potentially used to help address health disparities in underserved communities.”

 

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