Access to nature is vital for our physical and mental health, particularly in an increasingly urbanized world. Integrating specific types of nature into the urban fabric is critical to ensure that everyone receives these benefits, especially those individuals who stand to gain the most.
Emily Rugel, PhD Candidate in Population and Public Health
We live in an era when more than half of the world’s population resides in cities filled with towering skyscrapers, honking horns, and teeming sidewalks. Despite our growing immersion in such surroundings, however, we remain deeply connected to nature: it soothes us, reminds us of our role in a broader ecological system, and links us back to our earliest origins. Exploring this innate connection, a great deal of research has linked exposure to nature – areas such as parks, beaches, and gardens – to human health benefits, and to mental health benefits in particular.
CONNECTIONS BETWEEN NATURE AND MENTAL HEALTH
Generally, we think of four main pathways that link nature to mental health. First are the direct psychological benefits we get from immersing ourselves in nature, or even simply viewing trees through a window or hanging pictures showing scenes of nature on our walls. Second, there are the opportunities that places like parks provide for physical activity – especially walking, which is the most common form of exercise – with studies showing that exercising in nature improves our moods even more than the same exercise carried out indoors. Third, natural spaces can help connect people. For instance, trees along a street can encourage residents to meet their neighbours, while large open areas are perfect for events like picnicking. Staying connected is vitally important for our mental health, especially when it comes to healthy aging. Finally, nature can provide a refuge from the crowds, pollution, and noise common in cities, all of which can increase levels of stress and anxiety in some people.
DEVELOPING NEW INSIGHTS TO REDUCE MENTAL HEALTH BURDENS
Understanding these pathways is the first step toward designing healthy urban environments, but it’s only a first step. Exactly what dose of nature we need for optimal mental health, and how best to ensure that natural resources are distributed both fairly and widely, remain open questions.
Answering these questions is especially important in light of the hardships caused by poor mental health, particularly among Canadians. In 2012, more than nine million Canadians reported having experienced a mental illness such as anxiety, depression, or substance abuse. Mental illness can affect multiple areas of a person’s life, including their social relationships and ability to find, and hold on to, full-time work. These harms may also extend to friends and family members, who often provide care and support for their loved ones and can experience higher levels of stress and financial difficulties as a result. Unfortunately, both individual and population-level strategies to address the burden of mental illness remain less than ideally effective, with more than half a million Canadians reporting an unmet need for mental health care in 2012.
These answers are also needed to help guide the development of natural space protection policies and urban sustainability plans such as Vancouver's Greenest City 2020 Action Plan and New York City’s One New York Plan. By shaping a city’s physical and political environment, these plans affect each and every resident of a city. In many cases, however, they focus more on issues like reducing energy consumption or increasing recycling than on the importance of nature for human well-being. In addition, they often neglect to consider the specific needs and preferences of adolescents, women, older adults, and low-income individuals, all of whom are particularly vulnerable to mental health problems of different types.
A NEW WAY OF LOOKING AT NATURE ACROSS VANCOUVER
My research seeks to directly address this knowledge gap by developing a comprehensive Natural Space Index (NSI) for metro Vancouver. The Natural Space Index (NSI) is designed to provide a better understanding of variation in the presence, form, quality, and accessibility of multiple types of nature across the region. The index draws on a huge amount of publicly available information, including satellite-based greenness scores; locations of greenspaces (including local and regional parks), bluespaces (such as rivers, lakes, and oceans), and street trees; information on access restrictions such as private ownership and entry fees; and park quality appraisals conducted using the Public Open Space Desktop Auditing Tool. Integrating all of these factors represents a new way of looking at nature in urban environments, and one that I hope will be useful for community groups, urban planners, and municipal policymakers here in Vancouver and in other cities as well.
APPLYING OUR UNDERSTANDING TO FOSTER HEALTHY, SUSTAINABLE CITIES
Once completed, the NSI will allow us to take those next steps: identifying neighbourhoods (and groups) that could benefit from greater access to nature and identifying the types and amounts of nature associated with a lower risk of needing antidepressant and anti-anxiety prescription drugs. With these answers in hand, we can do a better job of preserving our innate connection to nature, and ensuring that the cities where we have chosen to make our homes are on a path to both sustainability and optimal mental health for all.