Visiting city parks can give your health a boost, but not all green spaces are created equal.
“We’ve been thinking about relationships between nature and health and wellbeing for hundreds — probably thousands — of years,” says Ben Wheeler, a researcher at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter Medical School in England, and a coauthor of the study on coastal communities. Still, “we’re only just scraping the surface of understanding what’s going on with that relationship.”
These days, our doctor can’t just write us a prescription for sea bathing. However, Wheeler and other scientists are starting to probe what kinds of nature our bodies need and how often we should be visiting it. Our cities have a long way to go before they become green havens, but the good news is reconnecting with nature doesn’t have to be complicated, and even urban parks can give our wellbeing an important boost.
When you step into a lush city park, it can feel a world apart from the paved streets outside. Around you might be streams, trees, or expanses of open grass. Street noise is muffled, replaced by gentle trills of birdsong or the wind in the leaves. All of these features influence our health in profound ways.
In cities, greenery protects us by absorbing pollution and cutting down on the heat island effect. Contact with nature also eases our stress, perhaps because it offers us calming scenery like trees and brooks as well as an oasis from our daily worries and from nuisances like sirens or construction noise. We “can get away from home or get away from stress at work…and be in a place where we can switch off from those demands,” says Catharine Ward Thompson, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
Nature also restores our ability to focus, which gets drained when we have to concentrate at work, navigate busy streets, and deal with other everyday demands on our attention. When we allow ourselves to become entranced by the sights, sounds, or smells of nature, our minds have a chance to rest and bounce back from this fatigue. “The pattern of light in leaves or on the forest floor, or waves coming to the shore, or bees dancing on flowers — all of those things engage us,” Ward Thompson says. “They’re interesting to watch, but we don’t have to make any effort.”
And as we replenish our mental reserves, we become less irritable, less impulsive, and less likely to make mistakes, says William Sullivan, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “People are kind of their better selves in many ways when they have greater contact with urban green spaces,” he says.