Monday 20 August 2018

Cities need green spaces or our mental health suffers

Green space and allotments benefit the health and well-being of everybody
Green space and allotments benefit the health and well-being of everybody

There is a housing crisis at present in Ireland, with new complexes being planned to cater for the deficiency that currently exists.

If you stand on the balcony of any apartment, in any of our cities, and look out across the rooftops, you will see that various areas have more or less greenery. In some instances, this consists of large wooded areas, often in the urban/rural interface. At times there will be acres of elegant old trees, inhabiting grassy parklands such as the Phoenix Park in Dublin. Then if you descend to street level, it too will have green patches at roundabouts, in front of housing estates, or in tree-lined middle class suburbs. Some cities will have land divided into vegetable allotments in the city centre - Bridgefoot Street in central Dublin in an example. So green space is comprised of various shapes and colours.

However, this green space is not just there to be captured for posterity by landscape artists or photographers. Neither is it there only to look beautiful and to appeal to our ascetic sense. It must have some utility. The beneficial impact of green on our health is an aspect of spatial design, once of interest only to geographers, now cuts across several areas of interest including sociology, psychology and town planning.

From a psychological perspective, high rise flats do not make good homes, despite the best attempts of parents. This is because they are often located in areas without any visible green vegetation and surrounded by concrete. Although the same might be true of homes that are too tightly packed together so that even a small garden is impossible.

What about blue space - the presence of water features like the sea, rivers and streams and lakes? Like green space, blue space has beneficial effects on mental health. Access to the countryside also benefits health, it seems. In particular, both green and blue spaces have an effect on stress-related disorders that have been described in many studies; these include, in particular, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and depressive disorders.

How might this come about? One possibility is that those in higher socio-economic groups, a group with lower rates of mental health problems than those living in poorer areas, are more likely to be living in towns and cities with green-spaces and for this reason are likely to be less likely to develop mental health problems.

However, studies have explored this by controlling for social-economic class in their statistical analyses. Similarly they control for local crime rates, a variable that might increase mental health difficulties either through direct or proxy exposure. The results show that even when these aspects are controlled and removed from consideration the advantages to mental health persist.

One possible explanation is that green and blue areas allow for exercise which has anti-stress properties. This comes about through the release of endorphins or "feel-good" hormones. The type of exercise may vary from jogging, strolls around the flowerbeds, footballs pitches located in the parks and so on. Another vehicle might be through the social contact that green areas are associated with. They reduce loneliness and isolation for those who are able enough to engage in any type of exercise, no matter how gentle.

Allotments, for example, are inevitably filled with horticulture enthusiasts who probably exchange, not just tools, but small talk and banter when they meet. If there was no allotment these people would be growing mushrooms from bags on their balconies without human contact instead of chatting to each other. Dog walkers in the parks smile and greet each other and their mutts. So the communal aspect of green space and blue space may contribute to social capital. And for children the impact is equally positive helping to improve exercise and reduce obesity, aiding the development of friendships and encouraging greater independence as children mature.

A home is essential for survival, health and for safety. But following behind that is companionship, the need for green space for social contact, hobbies and exercise. And studies have now confirmed that the distance between home and green space should be no more than one kilometer for optimal mental health. For example, a Danish study (Stigsdotter and colleagues published in the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health in 2010) found that respondents in their study, who lived more than one kilometer away from a green space had 1.42 the odds of experiencing stress than did those living 300 meters or less. The one kilometer figure has been replicated in several other studies.

As a frenzy of building is likely to commence and continue for some time, it is important that the planners behind this drive keep in mind the importance of grass and water in relatively close proximity to any new properties that emerge in the coming years. These are not just luxuries for the middle class. They benefit the health and well-being of everybody and should be embedded in the plans of developers.

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