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City residents have better mental health with access to green space

In an enlightening study by Texas A&M University’s School of Public Health, researchers have uncovered a pivotal connection between urban green spaces and the mental well-being of city residents.

Spearheaded by Dr. Jay Maddock, Regents Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health, and his team from the Center for Health and Nature, the findings reveal that individuals with greater access to urban greenery exhibit a reduced need for mental health services.

This important research, detailed in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, utilizes a novel approach to assess urban greenness.

Linking green space in cities to mental health

The study employs NatureScore, an innovative tool that amalgamates data on air, noise, and light pollution, along with the presence of parks and tree canopies, to evaluate the natural environment of any given address in the United States and beyond.

NatureScore classifies areas on a scale from “Nature Deficient” (0-19 points) to “Nature Utopia” (80-100 points), providing a comprehensive measure of urban greenery.

The study’s methodology involved analyzing mental health visit data from the Texas Hospital Outpatient Public Use Data Files, spanning 2014 to mid-2019.

This data, aggregated by ZIP code, included a range of demographic information but ensured patient anonymity.

Focusing on adult outpatient encounters for conditions such as depression, emotional disorders, stress, and anxiety, the study encompassed over 61 million records from urban areas across Texas.

“The association between exposure to nature and better mental health is well established in the United States and elsewhere, but most studies use just one or two measurements of this exposure,” Maddock said.

“Our study was the first to use NatureScore, which provides more complex data, to study the correlation between urban nature exposure and mental health.”

Green threshold: NatureScore and mental health

The results were telling, with a median NatureScore of 85.8 across the sampled ZIP codes, and a notable finding that neighborhoods with higher NatureScores reported significantly lower rates of mental health encounters.

The analysis highlighted a stark contrast: areas with NatureScores above 60 experienced approximately 50% fewer mental health visits than those with lower scores.

Moreover, residents in the highest scoring categories of NatureScore benefited from substantially lower rates of mental health issues, underscoring the protective effect of ample green spaces.

Dr. Maddock further elucidates, “A NatureScore above 40, which we consider ‘Nature Adequate,’ appears to be a critical threshold for maintaining good mental health. Individuals in these areas have notably lower risks of depression and emotional disorders.”

Bridging urban planning with mental health in mind

Omar M. Makram, the study’s lead author, points to the broader implications of their findings for urban development.

“Increasing green space in cities could promote well-being and mental health, which is critically important given that more than 22 percent of the adult population in the United States with a mental health disorder,” he said.

In summary, the Texas A&M University study compellingly demonstrates the critical role urban green spaces play in enhancing mental health among city dwellers.

By leveraging the innovative NatureScore tool, researchers have established a quantifiable link between access to natural environments and reduced dependence on mental health services.

This revelation sheds light on the protective benefits of greenery against mental health issues while pointing out the necessity for urban planners to integrate nature into the heart of city designs.

With over 22% of the U.S. adult population grappling with mental health disorders, the study’s findings advocate for a greener, more sustainable approach to urban development, highlighting the profound impact of green spaces on public health and well-being.

The full study was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.


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