Nature lovers and green-minded individuals have long insisted exposure to the natural world leads to a greater sense of well-being and health. Now researchers at the University of Illinois say they have found quantifiable evidence that this is indeed the case, and that green surroundings make people healthier. According to Frances E. Kuo of the university’s Landscape and Human Health Laboratory, research methods have improved enough over the last ten years to strongly suggest the health benefits of nature are real.
Though many environmentalists are already convinced natural areas make people healthier and happier, these personal convictions are often based on anecdotal stories that are hard to quantify scientifically. However in the last decade more and more researchers have taken time to conduct carefully designed studies that compare the health of groups of individuals regularly exposed to green space to those in a more artificial environment. To assess the mental and physical health of communities, researchers have used variables like blood pressure, immune system performance, and police reports of crimes in the area. Overall, the studies show individuals who live close to nature are likely to be healthier than those who don’t.
Reports featured by the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory include a study suggesting that trees near residences decrease the likelihood of domestic violence, that greener play areas reduce ADHD symptoms in children, and that views of natural landscapes can help young girls develop self-discipline. The reasons for such links between the surrounding environment and social health might seem difficult to fathom at first, but not once you understand the scientific rationale for why humans may be hard-wired to react to a green environment.
As early as 1984, Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson formulated the Biophilia Hypothesis, which predicts that the natural world holds an innate attraction for humans because it is the environment where our species first evolved and flourished. According to Wilson, green settings that somewhat resemble the landscapes where early humans evolved satisfy a need encoded in our DNA. The Biophilia Hypothesis has been used as an incentive for preserving natural areas and global biodiversity.
Over time the link between green surroundings and human health has become increasingly clear. However scientific skepticism demanded researchers test for other variables that might be affecting the results of studies. For example, while families living in close proximity to parks and other semi-natural areas clearly have better health, this could be because those living in bleaker, more artificial settings tend to have a lower income and less ability to afford first-rate medical care.
According to Kuo, recent studies have shown variables like socio-economic status can’t account for observed benefits of living near green space. No matter their income, people exposed to natural landscapes seem to be healthier physically, mentally, and socially. This raises questions about how urban areas might be designed to maximize exposure to nature.
More and more people around the world are predicted to move to cities in the years ahead. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing from an environmentalist perspective. After all, city residents tend to drive less and have a smaller carbon footprint than individuals who live in the suburbs or country and use a car to get around. However urban areas should be designed with parks and natural areas in mind; incorporating numerous small parks throughout a city could provide residents with the benefits of having nature close to hand. Finally, as awareness of nature’s role in human health spreads, the need to protect natural ecosystems both inside and outside cities will become clearer than ever.
If there is one thing findings of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory seem to show, it’s that people separated from green and semi-natural surroundings are less likely to reach their full physical and cognitive potential. It appears nature really does play an important part in feeding the human soul. In other words, one of the central arguments environmentalists have made for decades turns out to have been right all along.
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