How city planning can consider nature’s impact on mental health

Study creates framework for designing green infrastructure that improves mental health

Scientific studies have shown that interacting with nature improves mental health. However, trying to design practical solutions for cities or organizations has proven more difficult.

Now, a new study co-authored by a University of Chicago psychologist offers a framework for how city planners and municipalities around the world can start to measure the mental health benefits of nature. Published in the journal Science Advances, the research can help policymakers integrate nature into plans and policies for cities and their residents.

“Many people feel that natural environments or urban greenspaces are an amenity and not a necessity,” said Assoc. Prof. Marc Berman, director of UChicago’s Environmental Neuroscience Lab. “However, there is a growing research consensus that suggests that natural greenspaces may be a necessity due to their wide-ranging benefits on physical and mental health.”

An authority on the relationship between environmental factors and individual neural processing, Berman’s previous research has explored the ways in which interactions with nature—or even videos and sounds of nature—can impact cognitive performance.

He is one of more than two dozen leading experts brought together on the international collaboration led by the University of Washington and Stanford University. The scholars began the project by establishing a baseline, collective agreement regarding the understanding of the impacts of nature experience on aspects of cognitive functioning, emotional well-being and other dimensions of mental health.

The research team then built a conceptual model that can be used to make meaningful, informed decisions about environmental projects and how they may impact mental health. It includes four steps for planners to consider: elements of nature included in a project, say at a school or across the whole city; the amount of contact people will have with nature; how people interact with nature; and how people may benefit from those interactions, based on the latest scientific evidence.

“For millennia, many different cultures, traditions, and religious and spiritual practices have spoken directly to our deep relationship with nature,” said lead author Greg Bratman, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. “And more recently, using other sets of tools from psychology, public health, landscape architecture and medicine, evidence has been steadily gathering in this emerging, interdisciplinary field.”

The experts agree that nature can reduce risk factors for some types of mental illnesses and improve psychological well-being. They also agree that opportunities for nature experiences are dwindling for many people around the world because of urban growth.

Featuring scholars from as far as Stockholm University, the University of Glasgow and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the new study outlines how city planners, landscape architects, developers and others could eventually anticipate the mental health and cognitive impacts of decisions related to the environment.

“We have entered the urban century, with two-thirds of humanity projected to be living in cities by 2050,” said senior author Gretchen Daily, faculty director at the Stanford Natural Capital Project. “At the same time, there is an awakening underway today, to the many values of nature and the risks and costs of its loss.”

Many governments already consider the environment with regard to other aspects of human health. For example, trees are planted in cities to improve air quality or reduce urban heat island effects, and parks are built in specific neighborhoods to encourage physical activity. But these actions don't usually directly factor in the mental health and cognitive benefits that trees or a restored park might provide.

This new work could inform investments in livability and sustainability of the world’s cities, and eventually help address health disparities in underserved communities. The researchers hope their framework will be especially useful in considering the possible impacts of adding nature—or the mental health repercussions of taking it away.

“If the evidence shows that nature contact helps to buffer against negative impacts from other environmental predictors of health, then access to these landscapes can be considered a matter of environmental justice,” Bratman said.

Citation: “Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective,” Bratman et al., Science Advances, July 24, 2019. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax0903

Funding: Natural Capital Project, John Miller, Doug Walker Endowed Professorship, Craig McKibben and Sarah Merner, Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation, Winslow Foundation, George Rudolf Fellowship Fund, Victoria and David Rogers Fund, Mr. & Mrs. Dean A. McGee Fund.

—Original story appeared on the University of Washington website