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Research Shows Incorporating Nature into Cities can Improve Mental Health

SubverseJul 30, 2019, 6:16:49 PM

By Sean Jackson 

Researchers have conducted countless studies about human mental health over the past century. The number is increasing as statistics show that close to one in five adults live with mental illness. The statistics also indicate that approximately 450 million individuals live with mental and neurological disorders.

A team of international researchers with Stanford University and the University of Washington are attempting to stem the tide of individuals struggling with mental disorders by implementing a framework that can help the cognitive function and psychological well-being of people. The framework utilizes a number of scientific studies that show nature has a positive psychological impact, and they want to apply this framework to how cities are planned.

On July 24th the study was released in Science Advances, highlighting a growing body of empirical evidence that nature has a positive impact on the human psyche. The study cites a “rapid urbanization and decline of human contact with nature globally” as why there must be crucial decisions about how we enhance our interaction with nature.

While specific elements of living in nature, such as “water purification, provision of food, stabilization of climate, protection from flooding” and other extraneous variables for human life quality are still of the utmost concern, the study indicates that mitigating the mental health issues brought about by a synthetic landscape is imperative.

Greg Bratman, the lead author and assistant professor at the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences believes there is a direct benefit to mental health by incorporating nature into our daily ecosystem, saying, “Thinking about direct mental health benefits that nature contact provides is important to take into account when we are planning how to conserve nature and integrate it into our cities. The purpose of this paper is to provide a conceptual model of one way we can think about doing this.”

Experts brought together for the study include researchers from fields ranging from social and health sciences to natural sciences in an attempt to build a comprehensive framework on how to bring this concept into reality.

“In hundreds of studies, nature experience is associated with increased happiness, social engagement, and manageability of life tasks, and decreased mental distress,” states Gretchen Daily, senior author and faculty director at the Stanford Nature Capital Project. “In addition, nature experience is linked to improved cognitive function, 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.”

Although this line of study is still emerging, subject matter experts across the board agree that nature has the ability to reduce risk factors for certain types of mental and neurological disorders, as well as improve overall psychological well-being.

While local city governments have planted trees, created parks, and attempted to beautify cityscapes for a long time, there have not been attempts to truly integrate nature directly into cities that align with mental health benefits.

Greg Bratman reiterates this idea, noting that while city planners have been practicing beautification for centuries, there has not been a project like this to directly benefit mental health, “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.”