Back to nature - for the good of your health

Exposure to nature boosts our mental wellbeing, according to new research out of London.

Landscape architects J & L Gibbons, joined researchers at King’s College and art foundation Nomad Projects, to investigate how exposure to natural features in cities affects a person’s mental wellbeing.

Participants were given a smartphone-based app, Urban Mind, to answer several questions about their current environment and momentary mental wellbeing. GPS-based geotagging was used to monitor their exact location.

Results showed significant immediate and time lagged associations with mental wellbeing for several natural features: trees, the sky and birdsong. These associations were still evident several hours later, indicating lasting benefits.

 Auckland's Skytower seen from Victoria Park.

Auckland's Skytower seen from Victoria Park.

The beneficial effects of nature were especially evident in those people with greater levels of impulsivity who are at greater risk of mental health issues.

The team believe their findings could have global implications for urban planning and design, as well as for mental health, given that 3.5 billion people live in cities around the world.

“Right now decisions of urban planning and design aimed at improving mental health tend to be based on “conventional wisdom”, due to lack of robust scientific data,” say landscape architects, Johanna Gibbons and Neil Davidson, from J & L Gibbons. “Our findings provide a much-needed evidence base for the benefits of nature within urban centres.

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“From the perspective of urban planning and design, we hope the results will inform future investments and policies, helping build healthier cities.”

Dr Andrea Mechelli, from King’s College’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience says “the interaction of this effect with trait impulsivity is intriguing, as it suggests that nature could be especially beneficial to those individuals who are at risk of poor mental health.

“From a clinical perspective, we hope this line of research will lead to the development of low-cost scalable interventions aimed at promoting mental health in urban populations.”

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The Urban Mind app monitored 108 people who collectively completed over 3000 assessments during a one week period. The app measures a person’s experience of city living in the moment. By collecting real-time data, the researchers are able to understand how different aspects of the urban environment affect mental wellbeing.

Results of the study have been published in BioScience.

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