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How city planners can maximize the mental health benefits of nature

As interacting with nature becomes more professionally recognized way to improve several mental health disorders, an international team of researchers from the University of Washington and Stanford University have created a framework for how city planners worldwide can begin incorporating nature into their policies and plans to improve the mental wellbeing of their residents.

“Thinking about the direct mental health benefits that nature contact provides is important to take into account when planning how to conserve nature and integrate it into our cities,” said lead author Greg Bratman, an assistant professor at the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. “The purpose of this paper is to provide a conceptual model of one way we can start to think about doing this.”

Two dozen leading experts in natural, social, and health sciences came together on this study, published in Science Advances. They first had to agree on the fact that nature can positively impact cognitive functioning, emotional well-being, and other aspects of mental health.

“In hundreds of studies, nature experience is associated with increased happiness, social engagement, and manageability of life tasks, and decreased mental distress,” said senior author Gretchen Daily, faculty director at the Stanford Natural Capital Project. “In addition, nature experience is linked to improved cognitive functioning, memory and attention, imagination and creativity, and children’s school performance. These links span many dimensions of human experience, and include a greater sense of meaning and purpose in life.”

The experts also agreed that, because of urban growth, opportunity for nature experiences are on the decline.

“For millennia, many different cultures, traditions, and religious and spiritual practices have spoken directly to our deep relationship with nature,” Bratman said. “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.”

As of right now, many city plans work greenspace into their framework in order to improve air quality and reduce urban heat island effects, as well as give people the opportunity to stay active with parks and walking trails. However, mental health has yet to be taken into consideration in many city planning situations.

“We have entered the urban century, with two-thirds of humanity projected to be living in cities by 2050. At the same time, there is an awakening underway today, to the many values of nature and the risks and costs of its loss,” Daily said. “This new work can help inform investments in livability and sustainability of the world’s cities.”

The framework the experts came up with includes four steps for planners to consider: nature elements included in a project, no matter how small or large; the amount of contact people will have with nature; how people interact with nature; and how people could benefit from those interactions, based on modern scientific evidence.

“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. “We hope this framework will contribute to this discussion.”

“Eventually,” he added, “it could be developed and potentially used to help address health disparities in underserved communities.”

By Olivia Harvey, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Spectral-Design

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