Green neighbourhoods linked to improved mental health, says study

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The report linked greenery to reduced stress in a wide range of neighbourhoods – from heavily concreted inner cities to leafy suburban boroughs

Natural neighbourhoods lined with trees, gardens, and flowering plants can be a green “pill” for depression and anxiety, according to the largest study of mental health and nature in British cities.

The research, by the Universities of Oxford and Hong Kong (HKU), was the first to use high-resolution aerial photography to give a fresh perspective on the streets of 10 cities in England, Scotland and Wales and probed the mental health of some 95,000 people.

The report linked greenery to reduced stress in a wide range of neighbourhoods – from heavily concreted inner cities to leafy suburban boroughs – and finally provides solid evidence for the widespread belief that nature safeguards mental wellbeing, says Dr Chinmoy Sarkar, assistant professor at the Healthy High Density Cities Lab at HKU.

Sarkar says researchers cancelled out other factors, such as disparities in wealth, to discover that exposure to nature alone can cut the odds of serious depressive disorders by more than 5 per cent.

“There is an impending necessity for urban planning and public health to join forces towards the creation of healthy places and cities,” Sarkar, an expert in public health and geography, told The Independent.

He is calling on city planners to give powers to health professionals to reshape streets to boost mental wellbeing, as well as safeguard against illnesses including dementia and high blood pressure.

As the world’s urban population rises at an unprecedented rate, health professionals worldwide are grappling with the negative aspects of city living that contribute to poor physical and mental health. By 2030, 60 per cent of the world’s population is expected to live in cities, and Sarkar says solid data can allow medical professionals to predict health black spots to target groups most likely to be harmed.

The NHS has welcomed the research. Since 2015, NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens has pushed for greater input into how cities are built, consulting on street layout, infrastructure and home architecture on five planned Healthy New Towns.

In London, the NHS’ Healthy Urban Development Unit says it supports park runs, green gyms and urban greening efforts, and the report was much needed large-scale evidence to back-up public understanding of the value of nature.

But the study found that effects of greenery are not evenly shared, showing a stronger protective effect for women, people aged under 60 and people living in poorer neighbourhoods.

Sarkar explains women are more likely to interact with their urban surroundings – taking in urban nature as primary caregivers for children and relatives – as are younger, more active people.

Sarkar says the data could allow health services to pinpoint communities that are especially vulnerable to poor health.

Lower income neighbourhoods are more likely to encounter stressful life events but green spaces can be built as protective buffers that increase wellbeing, he says. Likewise, in areas with ageing populations, doctors can help design new green spaces that cut the risk of heart disease and respond to the demands of dementia.

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