Green for People: Real-Life Impacts of Nature

In last week's post we talked about how scientists have identified some of the features, or active ingredients, of nature that can be traced to specific positive effects of nature on humans' bodies and minds. This information came from a lecture some of our staff attended by Dr. Kuo of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. That particular area of research is still fairly new, but there is a much more extensive body of work showing what the effects of nature in general are for humans - even if we don't understand yet exactly what ingredient of nature causes each positive impact. Today we look at the big picture effects of nature on our bodies, minds, and communities. Some of these ideas can be traced back to the active ingredients we talked about last week, and others are more difficult to explain, but all are backed by solid research.

Health Benefits of Green

People who live in greener environments experience such an extensive list of health benefits, I could dedicate an entire post to it. A lot of these benefits can be traced to the fact that people in these environments are less stressed and get better sleep and more physical activity (and of course all three of those factors are interrelated), so that captures a whole range of health outcomes. To simplify things, I have picked just the three health improvements that surprised me most. If you want to see more, check out the resources at the end of the post.

  • Better Sleep: people in greener settings tend to get more sleep of better quality
  • Reduced Childhood Obesity Rates: research from here in Marion County shows that children in greener environments have lower BMI
  • Better Birth Outcomes: pregnant women living in settings with more grass and trees are less likely to give birth prematurely, and their babies tend to have higher birth weights

Mental Health Benefits of Green

As with physical health, the psychological benefits of green space are many. I'll pick three mental health impacts I found fascinating from Dr. Kuo's lecture. There will be more in the articles I list at the end of the post.

  • Reduced Anxiety and Depression: spending time in nature has been clinically shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Reduced Impulsiveness: spending time in nature can increase a person's impulse control and ability to delay gratification
  • Reduced Stress: spending time in nature or even looking at photos of nature improves cognitive functioning

Community Benefits of Green

It makes sense that happier, healthier people make better neighborhoods, and that's exactly what the evidence shows. Greener neighborhoods have less crime and more social connectedness than less green neighborhoods of similar income levels, and people who live in these communities even report that they find they are kinder and more gentle when they live close to nature.

It seems that the undeniable take-away from all this research is that our cities need more plants and more spaces for people to interact with each other and the natural world outside. Possibly the coolest thing about all of the effects I will talk about is that all of them have been proven in experiments that control for income. In many cases, higher-income neighborhoods also have more and safer green spaces, and they also have better mental and physical health for a whole slew of other reasons. But these studies are able to compare neighborhoods of at similar economic levels and still find all sorts of benefits of green space. Some were even able to trace a cause-and-effect link where a previously un-green area was "greened", and then the positive impacts started to roll in. As Dr. Kuo put it, this is about building a better habitat for humans. Making green cities is a preventative public health measure, and it's surprisingly cost-effective too. Humans developed closely in touch with the natural world, so it comes as no surprise that we need it to live good lives.

Want to read more?
Parks and Other Green Environments: Essential Components of a Healthy Human Habitat (Kuo, Ming)
Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Nature (American Society of Landscape Architects)
Social Benefits of Civic Nature (Wolf, Kathleen L.)

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