Our perceptions of green space matter more than how green our neighbourhoods are by Professor Chris Gidlow
Being around natural environments is good for us. Most of us probably already know this (or could have guessed) as we tend to prefer places like parks, woodlands and coastal areas. We seek them out for recreation and relaxation, and often feel better for it. But now, after a couple of decades of research in this area, there is now a huge amount of evidence to back this up.
Large population-level research shows that living in ‘greener’ areas is linked with better health. From self-reported health, to risk of depressive symptoms, cardiovascular disease or of dying early, greener neighbourhoods generally mean better health outcomes.
But why are green spaces good for our health?
This question has drawn the attention of many researchers in recent years. If we understand the mechanisms through which these benefits occur, and even the types of natural environment that are most beneficial, we can design healthier neighbourhoods and interventions to prevent and treat poor health.
Finding out why green space is good for us is complicated in many ways. Not least, because of the huge variety of ways in which exposure to natural environments can be measured. Geographical Information Systems (GIS) provide a fantastic tool to determine objectively natural environment exposure. For example, using GIS we can say how many accessible green spaces lie within a person’s neighbourhood, how many of these are parks, the total area of natural environment they can access within a 5-minute walk (or half a km) of their home. We can even use satellite images to estimate the total amount of vegetation around the home (often referred to as surrounding greenness). These tools have provided us with useful evidence to support urban greening 1 and other efforts to redress issues of urban sprawl and increase our opportunities to engage with nature.
However, recent findings from a European-funded study of natural environment and health (www.phenotype.eu) indicates that levels of use and people’s perceptions of their local natural environments might be more important than the actual amount of natural environment available to them.
Our paper published in Environment International 2 reports data from nearly 4000 adults from across four very different European cities. Results from multi-level regression analysis highlighted that in contrast to many previous studies, objective GIS-measures of natural environment exposure (surrounding greenness or distance to the nearest natural environment) were not associated with physical activity, social contact with neighbours or mental well-being. Rather, these outcomes were positively associated with the amount of time people spent in natural environments, and their perceptions of the greenness of their neighbourhood, their satisfaction with it, and its importance.
So, what does this mean?
If this is telling us that regardless of how green someone’s neighbourhood is, their perceptions and use of these natural environments might matter more, what is the message to those responsible for designing our towns and cities, or improving population health? Yes, we must strive for greener urban areas, and continue trying to make our neighbourhoods ‘healthier’, but community efforts to engage residents with our local green spaces and positively affect our perceptions could have greater rewards and benefit our health.
1 van den Bosch, M., Nieuwenhuijsen, M., 2017. No time to lose – Green the cities now. Environment International. 99, 343–350. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2016.11.025
2 Kruize, H., van Kamp, I., van den Berg, M., van Kempen, E., Wendel-Vos, W., Ruijsbroek, A., Swart, W., Maas, J., Gidlow, C., Smith, G., Ellis, N., Hurst, G., Masterson, D., Triguero-Mas, M., Cirach, M., Gražulevičienė, R., van den Hazel, P., Nieuwenhuijsen, M. Exploring mechanisms underlying the relationship between the natural outdoor environment and health and well-being – Results from the PHENOTYPE project. Environment International, 2019 (in press), 105173. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2019.105173