The role of green spaces in stress reduction

Guest submission: Dan Copping

According to United Nations predictions in its data booklet entitled “The World’s Cities in
2016”, 60% of the world’s population will be housed in urban areas by 2030. Rapid
urbanisation will continue to drive growth and productivity through economies of scale,
however the transition will also bring challenges such as increased demands on infrastructure,
the environment and inhabitants’ mental health?


The effects of urbanisation on stress levels

Stress-inducing aspects of cities include traffic queues, crowded pavements, crime, pollution,
social isolation and inequality. As exposure to these issues triggers feelings of stress in
individuals on a daily basis, urban living is also being shown to have consequences that are
longer in term and greater in complexity. For example, research undertaken by psychologists
at King’s College London and Duke University (2016) and similar studies have revealed that
individuals born and raised in cities are more likely to suffer from psychosis, anxiety
disorders and depression regardless of family history and socio-economic status.
A study by the University of Heidelberg Germany (2011) found that people who lived in
cities were more reactive to criticism. This suggests that when exposed to the alerts and
attention-grabbing threats that come with city life, rather than developing immunity to them,
individuals are instead experiencing degrees of psychological trauma.


The need for natural green spaces


Researchers from the universities of Oxford and Hong Kong (2018) looked into individuals’
loss of contact with natural environments in a study on residential greenness and prevalence
of major depressive disorders. They found that “'increased urbanisation and the associated
reduced contact of individuals with natural environments have led to a rise in mental
disorders, including depression” while “natural neighbourhoods lined with trees, gardens, and
flowering plants can be a green 'pill' for depression and anxiety”.
The research was conducted using data obtained over an 18 month period and a sample size
of close to 100,000 from UK Biobank, making it one of the largest investigations of its kind.
The scale and population-level diversity of the dataset allowed researchers to highlight
unevenness in the distribution of the benefit of green spaces between income groups. The
research showed that a lack of green spaces had a stronger negative effect on women,
individuals under 60 years of age and those living in low-income neighbourhoods.


Safeguarding our mental health


In order to ensure the wellbeing and productivity of an increasingly urban population, the
factors that give rise to increased stress levels will need to be carefully monitored and
mitigated. Responsible planning and management of urban development requires the
inclusion of features that serve to counteract the negative aspects of city living. The
preservation and introduction of green spaces is therefore an essential part of large-scale
urban design.


The responsibility for addressing the psychological requirements of our cities’ inhabitants
belongs not just to designers and planners but also to the individuals themselves. Through
increased awareness of the need to take stock of our mental states and look for ways to
improve our wellbeing, we can ensure that we remember to enjoy our parks and gardens and
encourage friends and families to do the same. For details of parks and green spaces
throughout the UK, visit https://www.gov.uk. To see how Thrive can help to can detect,
prevent and help manage common mental health conditions visit thrive.uk.com.