A growing body of research has shown the significant benefits of natural settings on human cognition and mental health. But until now, it has been difficult to quantify these benefits in a useful manner for cities that want to integrate nature into their design.
Now, an international team led by the University of Washington (UW) and Stanford University has created a framework for how city planners, landscape architects, developers and others can take into account the mental health benefits of nature and incorporate these into plans and policies for their residents.
The findings are published in the journal Science Advances.
“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 Dr. 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 study brought together more than two dozen leading experts in the natural, social and health sciences who research aspects of how nature can benefit human well-being.
Their first step was to establish a baseline, collective agreement regarding the understanding of the impacts of nature experience on aspects of cognitive functioning, emotional well-being and other aspects of mental health.
“In hundreds of studies, nature experience is associated with increased happiness, social engagement, and manageability of life tasks, and decreased mental distress,” said senior author Dr. Gretchen Daily, faculty director at the Stanford Natural Capital Project.
“In addition, nature experience is linked to improved cognitive functioning, memory and attention, imagination and creativity, and children’s school performance. These links span many dimensions of human experience, and include a greater sense of meaning and purpose in life.”
While research is still emerging, experts agree that nature can reduce risk factors for some types of mental illnesses and improve psychological well-being. They also agree that opportunities for nature experiences are dwindling for many people around the world because of urban growth.
“For millennia, many different cultures, traditions, and religious and spiritual practices have spoken directly to our deep relationship with nature. And more recently, using other sets of tools from psychology, public health, landscape architecture and medicine, evidence has been steadily gathering in this emerging, interdisciplinary field,” Bratman said.
Many governments already consider this with regard 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 neighborhoods 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.
“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,” Daily said. “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.
The model 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.
The team hopes this tool will be particularly useful in considering the possible mental health effects 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,” Bratman said.
Source: University of Washington