How Green Spaces Can Improve Mental Health

park bench

June 05, 2019 - DC, DE, MD, VA Florida Maine New England New Jersey, New York and PA North and South Carolina

The Ready Commitment - TD Bank's corporate citizenship platform - aims to help create the conditions so everyone has the chance to succeed in a changing world. In line with this mission, TD is focused on community giving and initiatives in four areas: Financial Security, a more Vibrant Planet, Connected Communities and Better Health. Mental health impacts all four of these drivers.

Many different factors can impact mental health, but perhaps one of the strongest positive influences is as simple as it gets: Mother Nature. Simply being in green spaces has been shown to improve our mental wellbeing, whether it's just sitting on the grass, enjoying a tree's shade, or passing wildflowers on the way to work.

The health benefits of nature

Multiple studies have found a link between being in nature and improved mental and physical health, and one study even found that children who grew up around more residential green space had lower rates of psychiatric conditions as they got older.

While most studies looking at green spaces and health have only shown a correlation between being around nature and mental wellbeing, a 2018 study actually demonstrated that adding small green spaces to inner-city neighborhoods caused residents' feelings of depression and worthlessness to decrease.

Researchers divided 541 vacant, blighted lots in Philadelphia into three groups. They left one group of lots alone and cleaned up the trash in another group, mowing and clearing trash once a month as needed. With the third group of lots, the researchers cleared trash, graded the land, planted grass and trees, installed a small wooden fence around the space, and then mowed and tidied the new mini-park monthly.

The researchers surveyed residents living near these lots 18 months before the renovations and then 18 months after. After the renovations, feelings of depression and worthlessness decreased among those living near the green lots – and even the crime rate had declined. But there was no change in mental health for those living where the lots remained the same or were only cleared of trash.

"For mental health, in particular, there's something about the green space in and of itself that's important, not just picking up trash," said Eugenia C. South, MD, the study's lead researcher and an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Why are green spaces so important?

Researchers are still trying to understand how and why green spaces can have such a profound effect on mental and physical health, but Dr. South explained several possibilities.

"One is social connection," she said. “Green space tends to bring people together and feel more connected to their neighbors and families, and social connections are really important for health."

Another is stress reduction. Green space helps people relax and improves attention after brain fatigue. "When you're in nature, it allows your mind to turn off, sort of recovering your attention while allowing your mind to wander," Dr. South said. “There's something restorative about your mind being able to wander that allows you to focus when you need to."

People also tend to be more physically active in green spaces, which helps clear the mind and improve mood. And finally, air quality is better when there's more greenery, as the plants remove carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen. Even those who work in an office building may be able to reap the benefits of being in nature if they have a place to take breaks outside among grass and plants, Dr. South said.

Building community around nature

A high-quality green area also helps people feel safe and may reflect the creativity and culture of its surrounding community, said Malcolm Carson, interim community health director for The Trust for Public Land, which creates parks and protects land in communities. TD Bank has partnered with The Trust for Public Land since 2015 to create Fitness Zone® areas in five Miami-Dade County parks, providing exercise equipment for the community.

"All of our activities are organized around making more quality parks and open space available and accessible to more people," he said. Though not everyone can build mini-parks in their neighborhoods, Carson said people can learn more about the quality of parks in their area using the organization's ParkScore website and then lobby their city officials to add more green spaces. For example, some communities have used this information to persuade cities to build parks instead of shopping centers or golf courses, he said. And those parks then bring people together.

"A good-quality park performs valuable ecological functions in terms of cleaning and cooling the air and the water, and it promotes social bonding," Carson said. "It fulfills functions that the community values."


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