What’s the fuss about urban nature?

Department of Conservation —  17/04/2019

By Jo Kearns, Healthy Nature Healthy People Advisor

New research, impressive both in scale and duration, shows green space is great for kids’ mental health.

In March a major new study from Danish biologists was released.

Read more about the study: Residential green space in childhood is associated with lower risk of psychiatric disorders from adolescence into adulthood

The psychological records of almost one million people were compared over their lives with the amount of vegetation surrounding each person’s home. It forms the largest investigation so far about the association between children spending time in green spaces and mental health as an adult.

Kids at water park.

Kids at water park

While it’s accepted that the results suggest a correlation that cannot yet be considered as the cause, the data does show positive links between green space and mental health. The researchers found that having green space around you while growing up meant the risk of developing psychiatric illness in adulthood was lowered by between 15% and 55%. American neuroscientist Kelly Lambert notes the effect is remarkable.

“If we were talking about a new medicine that had this kind of effect the buzz would be huge,” she says. This adds science to the body of circumstantial evidence suggesting more green = better health.

Kids on the slide at Margaret Mahy Park.

Kids on the slide at Margaret Mahy Park

 Kids playing cricket in the park.

Kids playing cricket in the park

Interestingly, there was no reduction of benefit when the green space was urban as oppose to rural.  The study showed that being surrounded by urban green spaces such as parks, playgrounds, or trees, still gave a person the effect of reduced likelihood of mental health problems later in life.

Science journalist Jonathan Lambert suggests the greenish light, the smells of soil and the quiet fluttering of leaves in the breeze help mitigate the pressures of our busy modern lives. “It’s as though our very cells can exhale when surrounded by nature, relaxing our bodies and minds,” he says.

Even having a nice view of nature to look at can help you feel grounded.

Even having a nice view of nature to look at can help you feel grounded

Right now there are no answers as to why green space offers us so much, but studies are ongoing. Some theories exist already – like the idea that green spaces encourage more social interaction, foster exercise, or a provide an experience of decreased air and noise pollution. It is no surprise that these ideas have some overlap with the five ways to wellbeing – connect, be active, keep learning, give, take notice.

This is of interest to us at DOC as it shows strong correlational results that point to the importance of ensuring New Zealand children live and spend time close to green spaces and that they are encouraged to explore our nature.  So whether at DOC we work to grow great nature in cities or the backcountry, both have a huge value to add to our communities.

It’s also very relevant to DOC’s intermediate outcome that New Zealanders contribute to conservation. This is underpinned by the DOC stretch goal that 90% of New Zealanders lives are being enriched through connection to nature, something that may in the most part play out in urban settings.

One of the kids enjoying some sun by the beach.

One of the kids enjoying some sun by the beach

With 87% of New Zealanders living in urban settings, whānaungatanga (kinship) with the whenua (land) will mostly be developed in parks, gardens or other city environs.

The habits formed in these environments that can result in the long-term health of people, and nature.  Studies show that those children who spend time in green spaces tend to continue throughout life to seek out green spaces, and commonly care more for nature as a result.

These are our kaitiaki of the future.

The Healthy Nature, Healthy People movement is about promoting and strengthening the connection between health, wellbeing and nature.

Find out more on our website.

3 responses to What’s the fuss about urban nature?

    DIANE OLIVER 27/04/2019 at 11:06 pm

    I live rural on a small block of land, 4acres . Approx half in conservation covenanted beautiful Bush. Now neighbors want to put their sewer pipes to discharge poo water in my Bush. Council corrupt, letting them as they made an error.


    Thanks for this important message and also great that I read DOC is working more with local government especially in Auckland- where one third of New Zealanders live. Its all about social equity, health and access to meaningful green spaces and this is not being allowed for in Auckland in the unitary plan. We need urgent Central government action and legislation on insuring all New Zealanders are within easy walking distance of a quiet green space. These are not the ecological deserts of sports fields and highly manacured pocket parks. A new approach to green space planning and parks in our big Urban areas is needed.

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