A concrete environment is not a healthy long-term habitat for primates—including human beings—according to research results just published in the journal, Psychological Science. In fact, people who live in city centers are not as likely to feel satisfied overall with their lives as those who live in suburban and rural areas, or near parks.
Over time, people have not evolved so far from their basic roots that they can eschew a view of green space indefinitely without harmful psychological effects. The study, which was led by Dr. Matthew White of the University of Exeter Medical School’s European Center for Environment & Human Health in Truro, Cornwall, England, has found that people living in urban areas that are close to parks and gardens tend to report less mental distress and higher life fulfillment than do city dwellers who live in concrete jungles.
This association held true, even after the researchers accounted for changes over time in participants’ income, employment, marital status, physical health, and housing type.
Data for the research were derived from the British Household Panel Survey, a nationally representative longitudinal survey of households in the United Kingdom that ran annually from 1991-2008, comprising over 5,000 households and 10,000 individual adults. Local area green space was derived from the Generalised Land Use Database, which classifies land use at high geographical resolution across England.
Dr White and colleagues were surprised by the scale of the effects of living in a greener area in comparison to “big- hitting,” or significant, life events, such as marriage: “We’ve found that living in an urban area with relatively high levels of green space can have a significantly positive impact on wellbeing, roughly equal to a third of the impact of being married.”
This effect is also equivalent to a tenth of the impact of being employed (versus unemployed).
“These kinds of comparisons are important for policymakers when trying to decide how to invest scarce public resources, such as for park development or upkeep, and figuring out what ‘bang’ they’ll get for their buck,” commented Dr. White.
Findings from previous studies have suggested a correlation between green space and wellbeing, but those studies were not able to rule out the possibility that people with higher levels of wellbeing simply move to greener areas. Dr. White and colleagues were able to solve that problem by using longitudinal data (data gathered from the repeated observation of participants over time) from the national survey, with data collected annually from over 10,000 people between 1991 and 2008.
The new research does not prove that moving to a greener area will necessarily cause increased happiness, but it does fit with findings from studies showing that short bouts of time in a green space can improve people’s mood and cognitive functioning.
While the effect for any one person might be minor, Dr. White points out that the potential positive effects of green space for society at large might be substantial.
“This research could be important for psychologists, public health officials and urban planners who are interested in learning about the effects that urbanization and city planning can have on population health and wellbeing,” Dr. White concluded.
Edited by Jamie Epstein