Professor Mardie Townsend,
Ms Rona Weerasuriya
Faculty of Health, Medicine, Nursing and Behavioural Sciences, Deakin University
Project completion year
There is growing evidence that access to the natural environment improves health and well-being, prevents disease and helps people recover from illness. The researchers reviewed current Australian and international literature on the links between mental health and well-being and the availability of green spaces. Sources included relevant electronic databases, peer-reviewed journals and grey literature. The major focus of this review was on the links between parks or green open spaces and mental health, in particular, depression and anxiety. While the emphasis is on the most recent literature, older literature has been included when it was relevant.
The effects of living in a “green” environment cannot be underestimated. A belief that contact with nature ameliorates stress and benefits humans can be found in the earliest documented histories of China, Greece and Persia. Since the early 1980s, environmental psychologists have studied the health effects of contact with nature and concluded that humans depend on nature not simply for material requirements – such as water, food and shelter – but also for emotional, psychological and spiritual needs. The range of psychological benefits for people who visit green, open spaces is vast and includes improved mood, lower levels of anxiety, lower stress levels, lower levels of depression and increased physical activity. Participating in health-promoting group activities such as hiking, physical activities and gardening also has a range of benefits for health and well-being.
People who perceive their neighbourhoods as less green have a lower likelihood of good physical and mental health; those with less access to private or shared gardens experience higher levels of stress and are more likely to be overweight; and those living in areas with few green spaces have higher morbidity levels for a number of diseases, including anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, low socio-economic neighbourhoods tend to have fewer facilities for outdoor physical activity and fewer natural elements, with more unsafe play areas and greater physical deterioration.
For children, research shows that close proximity to green spaces is clearly associated with reduced prevalence of depression, anxiety and other health problems. Many researchers believe that outdoor play has long-term benefits for physical, social, emotional and cognitive development and fosters a sense of identity, feelings of autonomy, psychological resilience and healthy behaviours. Additionally, children who experience high levels of contact with nature have higher levels of self-worth and higher cognitive function.
For young people with serious substance abuse issues and/or mental health disorders, horticulture therapy programs have a range of benefits including lower anxiety and depression levels, decreased illegal activity and drug use, and higher self-esteem. Being involved with nature in a detention setting increases self-pride, a sense of belonging, cooperation and social skills.
Older people are more likely to report a high or very high level of psychological distress than younger people. However, areas with natural landscaping, green neighbourhood meeting places, group-based nature activities such as walking, and shared gardens for the elderly can facilitate social contact, which has been shown to reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases such as depression and cardiovascular disease.
Implications for policy, practice and further research
Well designed, planned and managed urban green spaces provide significant aesthetic, social, psychological and environmental benefits for their users. Efforts must be made to improve quality of life in all neighbourhoods by increasing access to natural environments.
- Restricted access to nature may have serious negative effects on children’s physical, emotional and cognitive development.
- The restorative effects of horticultural interventions on young offenders should not be undervalued as a method of positively influencing risk factors that contribute to re-offending.
- The serious health and well-being implications of reduced access to green, open spaces for people living in socio-economically disadvantaged areas is significant and warrants serious consideration in future urban renewal and development projects.
- The plethora of findings on the benefits of green spaces and outdoor activity on psychological well-being in the elderly should provide the momentum for a shift in conceptualising health as more than a matter of providing aged care services.