More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and this is a distinctly contemporary phenomenon. Only a hundred years ago, cities were less densely populated, and most people lived in rural areas. In fact, according to UN estimates, 2007 marked the first time in history that more people lived in urban areas than in rural ones.
There are some upsides to this shift toward cities, such as a higher standard of living, better infrastructure, and improved access to medical care, education, and employment opportunities. But, as cities become denser, it’s essential to confront the shortcomings of urban environments. One of these is the lack of access to green spaces. In the era of increased urbanization, many people lose out on the benefits of interacting with nature and spending time in natural environments.
In urban areas and in industrialized nations, people spend less than 10 percent of each day outdoors, on average. And, in an era of rising screen time, children spend less time outdoors, despite studies that demonstrate many benefits to children of interacting with nature, such as reduced anxiety and improved health overall.
Increasingly, some urban environments are designed to offset this lack. The idea of incorporating designated green space into cities has been around since the 19th century – indeed, it dates from about the time that the slow transition to more urban-centric human society began. And research indicates that this design practice has many benefits to urban populations.
Green Spaces Reduce Stress
Numerous studies have shown the benefits greenspace can have on mental health and well-being. Research found significant mood-boosting effects from even a short walk in a natural environment. Other specific and measurable benefits include lowered pulse rate, reduced cortisol levels, and enhanced immune function.
Studies comparing urban areas with greenspace to those without it show that disease is less prevalent in the populations with access to greenspace. This suggests an immune system boost from greenspace. Engaging with greenspaces also correlates with reduced rates of mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
The bottom line: nature seems to enhance health and well-being. Immersion in a natural environment seems to have multiple, interrelated positive effects. And some studies suggest that even bringing natural elements indoors – in simple ways like houseplants, courtyards, skylights, and windows – can bring some of the same benefits.
Why Greenspace Helps
There are various theories to explain the positive effects of greenspace on health and well-being. One hypothesis, known as biophilia, suggests that throughout human evolution, connection with nature has been essential to our survival. Because our ancestors needed to find food and water and predict weather conditions, we feel profoundly reassured when we connect with our natural environment. The urban environment is a relative newcomer to the human psyche, and at some level it still leaves us feeling disoriented, stressed, and perhaps even in peril.
Another possible explanation, known as attention theory, has to do with the way that nature may refresh our cognitive resources. Attention theory posits two kinds of attention: directed and involuntary attention. The first is a limited resource that can be exhausted by attention to executive functions and tasks, and involuntary attention, which is effortless. Natural environments may restore the resource of limited attention by being rich sources of stimuli that engage involuntary attention.
Another theory attributes the health benefits of greenspace to a sort of cascade effect from stress-reduction. These studies show that even something as simple as the sound of running water serves as a buffer against the negative effects of stress, and therefore improves other health outcomes that are impacted by the physiological stress response.
These theories differ in their particulars, but the bottom line is the same: connecting with nature is essential for humans, and greenspace supports mental as well as physical health.
For Those in Recovery, Greenspace Can Heal
Recovering from substance or alcohol use disorder has many rewarding moments, but is often a difficult journey. No matter how firmly a patient embraces sobriety, life challenges can upset the balance. Under some circumstances, stress can even trigger a relapse.
That’s why greenspace is an important concept in recovery. Alcohol use disorder often co-occurs with mental illness or mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression. For patients in recovery, even something as minor as caring for a houseplant can help. Taking a brief walk among trees in a public park can have both immediate and lasting benefits. A small encounter with nature can boost mood, reduce stress and anxiety, and enhance immune response. Turning those small habits into daily practices, or embracing bigger steps like hiking or camping can further enhance well-being. Those new habits, in turn, can support recovery. Wherever a patient is on their recovery journey, getting out into nature is a good thing to try– and an even better habit to create.