New study guides city planning for nature’s mental health benefits

This post summarizes an article that originally appeared on University of Washington News.

Interacting with nature is increasingly recognized as one way to improve mental health. A number of scientific studies have shown that experiences in nature may benefit psychological well-being and cognitive function. Until now, it has been difficult for cities and organizations to quantify these benefits and convert the research findings into practical strategies.

Scientists have developed a new framework to guide city planners and municipalities around the world in measuring the mental health benefits of nature and incorporating them into plans and policies for residents. Conducted by an international team led by researchers from the University of Washington and Stanford University, the study was published July 24 in Science Advances. The study’s authors include Phil Levin, UW professor of practice and lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy in Washington; and Josh Lawler, UW professor of environmental and forest sciences and a member of our board of trustees.

Cities_Tree_Infographic_UrbanTreesCampaign_SocialMedia_NoLogos (1).jpg

Many governments already consider nature within cities with regard to other aspects of human health. For example, trees are planted to improve air quality or reduce urban heat island effects, and parks are built in specific neighborhoods to encourage physical activity. But these actions don’t usually directly factor in the mental health benefits that trees or a restored park might provide.

“We have entered the urban century, with two-thirds of humanity projected to be living in cities by 2050. At the same time, there is an awakening underway today, to the many values of nature and the risks and costs of its loss,” said senior author Gretchen Daily, faculty director at the Stanford Natural Capital Project. “This new work can help inform investments in livability and sustainability of the world’s cities.”

The research team built a conceptual model that can be used to make meaningful, informed decisions about environmental projects and how they may impact mental health. It includes four steps for planners to consider: elements of nature included in a project, say at a school or across the whole city; the amount of contact people will have with nature; how people interact with nature; and how people may benefit from those interactions, based on the latest scientific evidence.

“There is a growing understanding that time spent in nature can improve our health,” said Lawler. “This research explores how we can harness that understanding to design cities and green spaces that include nature and thus provide those health benefits to more people.”

Levin added, “For example, when treating stormwater with green infrastructure, we can explicitly consider how exposure to green space might also help the psychological well-being of residents exposed to other negative environmental impacts.”

The researchers hope this tool will be especially useful in considering the possible mental health repercussions of adding — or taking away — nature in underserved communities.