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Areas with natural biodiversity have greater mental health impact

Think a stroll through the neighborhood park does wonders for your mood? Sure, any kind of nature is better for physical and mental health than being stuck indoors, but according to new research, it’s the type of natural biodiversity that makes a huge difference in how your brain feels afterward.

The scientists found that spending time with a diverse range of trees, plants, water features, and wildlife can make us feel significantly happier and calmer than manicured green spaces.

Urban mind

A team of researchers at King’s College London tackled this question with the help of nearly 2,000 people and a cool smartphone app called Urban Mind.

In the study, participants logged their surroundings and their mental state several times a day for two weeks, making this the first study to look at “in-the-moment” reactions to nature.

Ryan Hammoud, lead author of the study, sums up the importance: “To our knowledge, this is the first study examining the mental health impact of everyday encounters with different levels of natural diversity in real-life contexts. Our results highlight that by protecting and promoting natural diversity we can maximize the benefits of nature for mental well-being.”

Natural biodiversity and mental well-being

The researchers didn’t simply compare time spent in nature versus indoors. Instead, they carefully analyzed how the variety of natural elements influenced people’s well-being. Here’s how they categorized this diversity:

  • Trees: This included a wide range of species, from tall and sturdy oaks to slender, swaying palms – each with its own unique shape and texture.
  • Plants: Everything from soft grasses and vibrant flowers to leafy bushes and shrubs filled the spaces. This variety provided different colors, scents, and textures for the participants to experience.
  • Birds: The study observed common birds like sparrows and pigeons, but also the excitement of spotting a less frequent visitor like a hawk. The variety in their size, color, and calls likely enhanced the experience.
  • Water: Natural bodies of water like lakes, ponds, streams, and rivers were included as well as smaller water features like fountains. These offer unique visual appeal and sounds.

Surprisingly, the scientists discovered a clear pattern: the more biodiverse a person’s natural surroundings — meaning they included a higher number of these different elements — the more positive and relaxed that person felt mentally.

Cities with natural biodiversity boost mental health

“In the context of climate change, we are witnessing a rapid decline in biodiversity in the UK as well as globally,” explains senior author Andrea Mechelli.

“Our results suggest that biodiversity is critical not only for the health of our natural environments but also for the mental well-being of the people who live in these environments,” she continued.

This research sends a clear message to city planners and officials around the world. If you aim to genuinely enhance the mental health of your residents, you must not overlook the importance of biodiversity. Emphasizing diverse natural environments is crucial for fostering healthier urban living.

For too long, cities might think they’ve addressed mental health needs by adding a few parks or greenbelts. However, this research shows that simply having some nature isn’t enough. It’s the rich variety within those spaces that makes the real difference.

Urban planning needs to move away from the idea of nature as decoration or an afterthought. Biodiversity needs to become a central design principle, where every new development is carefully assessed for how it contributes to – or detracts from – the existing natural ecosystem.

Investing in biodiverse urban environments isn’t just about making people feel good in the moment. Research suggests that exposure to nature can have lasting positive effects on mental health, reducing stress, and potentially lowering the risk of conditions like depression and anxiety.

Embracing nature’s biodiversity for better mental health

Okay, so what does this mean for the average person?

“In practice, this means moving away from heavily curated monocultural pockets and parks of mown grass, which are typically associated with low biodiversity, towards spaces which mirror the biodiversity of natural ecosystems. By showing how natural diversity boosts our mental wellbeing, we provide a compelling basis for how to create greener and healthier urban spaces,” Hammoud explained.

It’s time to rethink what a “nature outing” means. Instead of that same old park with manicured grass and a handful of predictable trees, seek out wilder, more diverse places.

Here are a few ideas to start:

Explore a local forest preserve

Lose yourself among the trails of a protected natural area. Pay attention to the variety of plant life around you. Notice the different shapes of leaves, textures of bark, and any wildflowers sprouting between tree roots.

Also, keep an eye out for signs of animal life. Look for tiny insects, animal tracks in the mud, and listen for the calls of birds echoing through the trees.

Find a rambling garden

Many cities have community gardens or arboretums that intentionally cultivate a wide range of plants.

These places provide a feast for the senses, showcasing different colors, textures, and scents. Plus, they create an ideal home for butterflies, bees, and other fascinating insects.

Walk along a river or lake

Opt for shorelines that haven’t been overly landscaped. Look for natural biodiversity like fallen logs, reeds, and a variety of rocks near the water’s edge.

You might spot unique birds like herons, see turtles basking in the sun, or even discover interesting frogs or fish if you peer into the water.

After all, nature at its most vibrant and diverse offers a richer, more engaging experience than perfectly manicured lawns and predictable plantings.

The study is published in Scientific Reports.


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