Can Access to Nature Improve Mental Health? | Community Idea Stations

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Can Access to Nature Improve Mental Health?

Many Virginians get to enjoy the outdoors by breathing in mountain air, hiking our many trails, or hanging out near a favorite watery spot. It’s great for our bodies, a perfect opportunity to be reunited with granola snacks, and it’s even good for our mental health. This brings up a few questions. Can nature really improve mental health? And if so, how can we increase the general public’s access to green spaces? All great questions for science to answer! Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to learn more.

Virginia often ends up on many tourism websites for its arts and culture, foods and breweries, and most certainly for our beautiful natural resources. A quick trip to the mountains, the coast, or even a trail along a state park are all relatively easy to access. However, for Virginians in urban areas, getting some quality time in nature can be a little difficult. Blighted and unused vacant lots can often be found scattered all over cities and now scientists and concerned citizens are suggesting we clean them up to increase public access to green spaces. This would beautify the neighborhood, but could also improve an area’s mental health. So, how do we know that greened up areas do indeed boost mental health?

Recently social scientists in Philadelphia teamed up with a non-profit that focuses on greening up urban vacant lots as a way to increase public access to green spaces. Being scientists, while doing this they also decided to run an experiment. Here, 442 people living near vacant lots saw one of three things happen - either their vacant lot was greened up and regularly maintained, not greened up or kept clean, or finally, spaces where nothing happened at all. The results showed that the greened up areas made a pretty big difference actually! People exposed to the greened up vacant lot reported feeling much less depressed 18 months after the green intervention. Better yet, the effect was even stronger in poor neighborhoods. Lower income neighborhoods are also some of the most vulnerable places in urban areas for heat related issues, access to water, and shade from trees. Adding some green spaces in these economically depressed areas could really bring up health standards simply by reconnecting individuals to nature when possible. Small public green spaces and mini-parks, make for an easy place to get some recreational time, get to know the neighbors a bit more, offer shade for hot days, and in general -helps bring up mental health levels.

Scientists also know that adding green infrastructure reduces urban heat that causes heat-related illnesses. Unused vacant lots and surrounding developed areas also greatly contribute to the urban heat island effect. This has serious implications for heat related illnesses especially if one does not have access to cooling down or dealing with the heat for medical reasons. These concrete and asphalt heavy vacant lots also limit rainwater runoff carrying toxins into our waterways. These issues stress a city’s storm water management systems and can allow dangerous wastes to run into our streams and rivers during storms.

In addition to all of these benefits, greening up vacant areas comes with an extra bonus benefit. We all know that plants take in CO2 and pump out fresh and lovely oxygen, right? Meaning that if we green up more vacant spaces we can improve air quality as well. The benefits just keep coming. There you go, proof that green spaces can improve mental health….much like eating granola.