I know I'm not alone in saying that my daily walk outside during the endless months of lockdowns in the UK kept me sane (bear with me, this isn't another COVID article). In the midst of the uncertainty, fear and isolation that the pandemic fueled, local parks and nearby green spaces felt like salvation. I became aware of the changing seasons. I would notice the shifting colours of the trees, the morning dew, the birdsong. I would check the pond in Brandon Hill Park religiously every morning, to see if the tadpoles that dwelled there had grown into baby frogs overnight. I was mesmerised by this small slice of Mother Nature. Even as a self-described nature enthusiast, I admit that before the lockdown, I took my local parks in the city of Bristol for granted. I would only have been able to name a couple off the top of my head. I was more interested in spending my time and energy planning city breaks or long weekends in European countries, rather than exploring my own backyard. Government-mandated confinement drove me to find a deep appreciation for these local areas.
All over the world, lockdowns brought a new appreciation of nature and its role in our wellbeing. Studies carried out over the 2020 lockdowns highlighted that being outdoors was associated with higher emotional wellbeing, whereas higher daily screen time was associated with poorer wellbeing. Even the impact of loneliness on wellbeing was weaker when participants were outdoors rather than indoors.
There's an element of irony here: nature is good for us, but the drivers of the COVID-19 pandemic remind us that humans and nature also pose risks to each other. Our cities are expanding outward and intensifying inward. Both of those directions increase the risks of animal-to-human disease transmission. Expansion destroys natural habitats, while urban densification and population growth bring wildlife closer to humans and make disease transmission more likely. A 2020 World Wildlife Fund report, COVID 19: urgent call to protect people and nature, also highlighted the disease and ecological risks posed by the intensification of agriculture and the trading and consumption of wild animals.
How can we maximise our wellbeing while our cities are growing, and our lifestyles are becoming increasingly urbanised? We live busier lives and spend more time online—either trapped behind a screen in our concrete highrises, or glued to our smartphones on our daily commutes.
Research is increasingly telling us that nature needs to be let back into urban settings. The World Health Organization recommends that all people reside within 300 metres of green or blue space. Green spaces are defined as open-space areas reserved for parks, plant life and other kinds of natural environments. Blue spaces are visible surface water areas such as lakes, rivers, canals, and coastal bodies of water.
Consider how far you are from your local park, village green or nature reserve, and when you last visited. Are these spaces accessible to you? Your proximity and right to enjoy blue and green spaces will be determined first by geography. Only 2.2 percent of the city of Istanbul is green space. Compare that to Moscow, which has 18 percent green space with a similar population and geographical size. Oslo, while a city of much smaller scale, has an impressive 72 percent green space. Within any city, access to that green space is then determined by socioeconomic factors.
Green spaces in cities mitigate the effects of pollution. They can also reduce a phenomenon called the 'urban heat island effect', which occurs when cities replace natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat. Green spaces reduce surface temperature and create ecosystems that enable a variety of bird and insect species to thrive. This, in turn, keeps the trees healthy and increases air-purification potential.
Green roofs are an excellent way to maximise green spaces in urban areas. Rooftop soil and plants minimise a building's energy consumption by reducing surface temperature and insulating the structures below. Green roofs reduce the urban heat island effect and help regulate rainwater, trapping it as it falls and filtering out pollutants that would otherwise end up in the streets. Rooftop vegetation can also absorb the harmful airborne particles and pollutants produced by fossil-fueled transport and industrial activities in the city below. Green Roofs for Healthy Cities (GRHC) is a North American nonprofit that recognises the green roof potential. Since its 1999 inception, GRHC has had been developing and protecting the market by increasing public awareness of the economic, social, and environmental benefits of green architecture. GRHC works through education, advocacy, professional development, and celebrations of excellence.
The aesthetics that green roofs bring to cities are also of value. Google 'rooftop gardens' in any major city, and you will find the best spots to go enjoy the rooftop scene. Consider London's Sky Garden, Singapore's Gardens by the Bay and New York's Rockefeller Centre Roof Gardens—famously desirable inner-city green spaces that cut through the concrete jungle. Perhaps the desire for these spaces reflects the green deprivation felt within any major metropolis.
People are naturally drawn to the green spaces within their reach, but research has shown that our instinct is also drawing us toward fundamental, physical health benefits. Studies have linked exposure to green spaces with lower heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol and obesity levels; and reduced incidence of stroke, asthma, diabetes and coronary heart disease.
In densely urban Hong Kong, 3544 men and women were studied over 10 years. When the subjects increased their green time by 10 percent, the study found a significant reduction in all-cause mortality and mortality caused by circulatory conditions and strokes. These benefits occurred independent of age, sex, marital status, years lived in Hong Kong, education level, socioeconomic status, smoking, alcohol intake, diet quality, self-rated health or housing type. Such studies have informed the European Environment Agency's claim that every 10 percent increase in green space is associated with a disease reduction equivalent to an increase of five years of life expectancy.
Merely having nature within sight can result in positive health outcomes, as discovered in the 1980s by Roger Ulrich. Ulrich's research found that patients who had a view of nature from their hospital beds recovered quicker, required less pain medication and had fewer post-surgery complications than hospital patients with urban views. These findings have influenced 21st century hospital design, with a growing number of modern health care facilities providing ‘healing gardens’—purpose-built natural areas for patients and visitors to enjoy. Whether nature is an intrinsically healing force or simply a powerful placebo is a question that remains unanswered by research, but the end result is the same: nature has the ability to soothe patients who are struggling to cope with the stress of hospitalisation. And when patients are less stressed, they tend to heal more quickly and respond more effectively to treatment. Esteemed University of Canterbury Professor Simon Kingham made reference to this phenomenon in a recent Lovepost interview, noting current research into the positive mental health impacts that come from seeing blue space. Even people who are able to see a physically distant blue space will experience positive effects.
Research has confirmed that a combination of large city parks, random green spaces and smaller parks is the optimal recipe for the health of both urban residents and ecosystems. Likewise, urban proximity to blue spaces is beneficial for the health, happiness and fitness of city residents. The fact that most cities are located on some form of waterway is promising—but we can do more.
The exciting news for city-dwellers is that it takes only 120 minutes a week in natural surroundings to experience nature's health benefits.
How many of us prioritise that time? When I reflect on how much time I spend staring at a screen each day, I cringe. The fact that the average screen time for American adults is 11 hours a day provides some reassurance that I am not alone. And yet, I also see the longing: the default screensavers for phones and computers are of mountainscapes or beaches. Meditative playlists include sounds of the forest, rain, waves crashing, waterfalls. We escape to the country, pay more for a view, keep flowers and plants in our homes. We are undeniably drawn towards nature and its beauty.
Why does spending time in nature improve our mood? The obvious reason is that when we’re outside, we tend to move more. Motion releases endorphins and further boosts our mood and energy level. Being in nature allows us to feel more present in our surroundings. We immerse in an environment that uses our senses—absorbing the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of being outside in the natural world. Feeling the breeze, taking in the greenery, smelling the earth, hearing the birdsong. These sensory experiences are called 'bottom-up' experiences, in which our senses experience stimuli from our external environment before our brains intellectualise those inputs. This differs from the 'top-down' experience that takes place in our heads, interpreting information based on prior knowledge, experiences, and expectations. For example, taking in the beauty and smell of a flower in the park is a bottom-up experience as our senses are ignited, unlike seeing a photo of the same flower and trying to name or describe it in our heads. The bottom-up approach is an excellent way to feel more connected to the world around us in the present moment. This contributes to mindfulness, an ancient and critically respected tool for achieving an inner sense of calm, and minimising feelings of anxiety and depression. By spending time in the natural world, we increase our opportunity for bottom-up interactions, which help to unclutter our minds and make us feel more active and alive.
Thoughtful urban densification means sharing more and owning less of the green space—and that turns out to be a good thing for the whole community. Communal green spaces have added benefits for our wellbeing, assures University of Canterbury professor Simon Kingham. "We know that if you know more neighbours, particularly local, then you're more likely to [become] a resilient community."
The resiliency of a community gets put to the test in natural disasters, when the strain on everyone's mental and physical wellbeing is greater than ever. Interesting research emerged after Christchurch's devastating earthquakes, highlighting our need for community connectedness to foster resiliency. Where shared facilities like parks, walking trails or community gardens had been lost to the earthquakes, both formal and incidental social interaction was lessened, adding to the challenges of recovery. The link between social connection and human wellbeing has been affirmed time and time again.
You may have heard terms such as ecotherapy, green therapy, Green Prescriptions or nature-based healing. These all come under the ecotherapy umbrella, a psychological approach that seeks the healing, soothing benefits of connection to one's environment and the earth. There isn't a single definition, but it often involves regular, structured activities that focus on being within a green environment while exploring and appreciating the natural world.
Shinrin-yoku—or 'forest bath'—is a Japanese ecotherapy practice that captured my attention. This term was coined in the early 1980s by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, introduced as the physiological and psychological exercise of simply "taking in the forest atmosphere." Shinrin-yoku was imagined to offer an ecosolution to the technological burnout that was sweeping through city workers, inspiring individuals to reconnect and protect the country's forests. This form of ecotherapy was quickly embraced and adopted around the world, backed by scientific research attesting that it improves mental and physical relaxation.
Shinrin-yoku, and similar forms of ecotherapy, are more than just being outdoors for the purpose of exercise. Forest bathing is rooted in relaxation—just you and the nature surrounding you and unlocking all five of your senses. By savouring the sounds, smells, sights, tastes and feel of nature; you bridge the gap between busy modern life and the natural world. Shinrin-yoku is suitable for any level of fitness, and can be done anywhere in the world where there are trees. A forest isn't essential. Once you have figured out what is most comfortable, you can enjoy the benefits of forest bathing in a nearby park or in your own garden.
Research reminds us how beneficial green environments are. Time spent in nature can improve sleep, reduce stress, promote positive social interactions and set the scene to reflect on deeper meanings in our lives. Sadly, our uneven access to green spaces is a very significant dimension of inequality within our societies. Research has found that access to green spaces is predominantly income-based in urban settings. This was highlighted by the pandemic: a UK government survey found that children from low-income families spent less time outside in green spaces during the pandemic months in 2020 than did children from higher-income families. You can visualise how different lockdowns looked across wealth gaps: wealthy houses with backyards, trampolines, and lawns for kids to kick a ball around; versus the kids who were confined to council flats with minimal opportunities to expend their energy.
Open, leafy areas are typical of affluent neighborhoods, whereas low socioeconomic areas tend to be more overcrowded and heavily concreted. When city neighbourhoods create more green space, the price of housing often rises. Original residents get priced out in a phenomenon known as 'green gentrification'.
Greening our cities is a political and societal exercise that will only become more important as urban populations boom: by 2050 almost 70 percent of the global population is expected to live in urban environments. To ensure that everyone can benefit from time in nature, urban green spaces must be made more easily accessible and equitable. Not just parks but streams, community gardens, green walls and roofing, even sidewalks and roadside verges can provide beneficial green space with the right care and investment.
Simon Kingham knows this side of environmental justice well, particularly in a New Zealand context. He calls Aotearoa an interesting case study because New Zealanders living in low income areas actually do have as much green space as those in wealthier areas. The population density is low, and New Zealand's natural endowments made the basics easier to achieve. Now, New Zealand provides a more nuanced case study, with the quality of its green space becoming much more relevant.
For example, Simon noted that due to various socioeconomic and circumstantial factors, people don't always feel safe in their nearby green spaces, such as their local parks. This poses the dilemma of creating a space that is safe enough for people to feel comfortable in—a young woman walking through her local park at night will appreciate strong lighting, wide pathways and open clearings—yet aesthetically interesting enough to simulate nature and provide those key benefits.
A further obstacle that Simon highlights is the cost and maintenance required for successful green spaces, a burden that he says generally falls on local councils. "In many ways, the benefit falls to the District Health Board and the Ministry of Health, because if people's physical and mental health is better, that's good. But the costs and the benefits go to different parts of the government. And this is one of the problems we have about joined-up government, and it's not anyone's fault. It's just that councils have to maintain trees and green space."
This becomes more important when we start increasing density—both population density and housing density—because people in denser neighbourhoods are less likely to own private green spaces. "Shared green space becomes more important but of course, the cost falls on local authority and council and this is one of the challenges we face."
Voters need to set those priorities, and New Zealand's low turnout for local elections could also hinder councils' motivation to face such challenges.
Yet Simon does not regard urban intensification negatively. In fact, intensification is a crucial part of our future, he believes. "We have to increase the density of our housing and our cities for a whole bunch of climate change [and] transport sustainability reasons. But we also need to ensure that there are safeguards, to ensure that development does include green space."
Increasing housing density while preserving green space is a challenge for urban developers. Simon believes this is possible to do. He sees successful examples in European countries where communal spaces are a more accepted part of the culture. Simon mentions the innovative city of Freiburg, located in southern Germany and dubbed the 'environmental capital.' Sustainably-minded characteristics of Freiburg include over 300 kilometres of city bike paths, two-thirds of its land area dedicated to green use, huge public transport subsidies, and an emphasis on solar energy. Freiburg has set a goal of achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 and carbon neutrality for the entire city by 2050.
By contrast, New Zealand has not yet embraced the concept of shared land ownership. "New Zealand's land ownership system is basically based on everyone having their own bit of land. What you're actually wanting to move to is a system where you have a house, but you might share the land somehow, and that's when it becomes complicated." Simon sees it as a challenge of modernity to balance our dual needs for urban intensification and green space, and it's a challenge that must be solved in cooperation with developers.
Peterborough Housing Cooperative, a Christchurch-based organisation, is challenging these individualistic ideals. Rebuilt after the 2011 earthquakes, the Peterborough Co-op includes 14 townhouses around a large central courtyard, with a neighbourhood house to facilitate communal interaction. Lovepost spoke with Peterborough resident and representative Trystan Swain about the benefits of this particular living style. "Grouping houses and people together means we can value social connections and the simple things in life—afternoon teas, dinners together, games evening—rather than buying things to make us happy. As we designed the houses, we ensured a high level of installation—way above the legal requirement—so we consume less power."
Trystan went on to highlight the wider social benefits stemming from the Peterborough model. "Growing up here makes you smarter, more socially adept and more successful when becoming an adult. This is because of the increased number of non-parent conversations and interactions you have. Children do need four positive adults in their lives to develop their potential."
Although the resident feedback and media coverage have all been positive, Trystan says the appetite for, and supply of, cooperative living options are not widely present yet. Cooperative housing "will stay a fringe option unless infrastructure backing is established. Aotearoa New Zealand is an unusually individualistic and social[ly] distant culture... What needs to shift to facilitate that is the establishment of a cooperative bank that can provide development loans, and a developer that wants to build them."
Humans and nature can develop in mutually beneficial ways: people can benefit from connecting with the natural world, while the environment benefits when people are committed to caring for it. If we don't learn to do that—if urban environments continue to expand without prioritising green spaces—the disconnect between humans and nature will widen. Estranged from nature, people may lose their motivation to battle climate change, as well as losing nature's accessible health benefits.
Functioning cities require shelter, water, food, energy, connectivity and sanitation—but healthy cities need public green spaces to be included on that list. For now, as I currently reside in New Zealand, I am grateful for my local parks and the abundance of natural assets. Having learnt how they contribute to my wellbeing, I will not take them for granted again.