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Parks: Medicine for Urban Mental Health

Jonah Lehrer writes the other day in the Boston Globe on how cities, as fun, energetic and vibrant as they are, for these very reasons can cause our brains to strain. He notes recent research showing this, but also evidence from studies showing how places like parks and trees can help alleviate the problem. He writes:

A city is so overstuffed with stimuli that we need to constantly redirect our attention so that we aren’t distracted by irrelevant things, like a flashing neon sign or the cellphone conversation of a nearby passenger on the bus…….. The mind is like a powerful supercomputer, but the act of paying attention consumes much of its processing power.

Parks and natural settings can, in effect, have been shown to reboot our internal computers. One interesting point comes towards the end of the piece, where Lehrer writes about recent research into what makes for a properly designed park — or you could say the mental health maximizing park:

Although Olmsted took pains to design parks with a variety of habitats and botanical settings, most urban greenspaces are much less diverse. This is due in part to the “savannah hypothesis,” which argues that people prefer wide-open landscapes that resemble the African landscape in which we evolved. Over time, this hypothesis has led to a proliferation of expansive civic lawns, punctuated by a few trees and playing fields.

However, these savannah-like parks are actually the least beneficial for the brain. In a recent paper, Richard Fuller, an ecologist at the University of Queensland, demonstrated that the psychological benefits of green space are closely linked to the diversity of its plant life. When a city park has a larger variety of trees, subjects that spend time in the park score higher on various measures of psychological well-being, at least when compared with less biodiverse parks. “We worry a lot about the effects of urbanization on other species,” Fuller says. “But we’re also affected by it. That’s why it’s so important to invest in the spaces that provide us with some relief.”

6 Responses

  1. Thanks for the information on urban mental health. Wow, you bring up some great points about the perks of parks.

    We recently wrote an article on mental health at Brain Blogger. Panic attacks happen to many people all across the country. But what causes panic attacks? How do you avoid them?

    We would like to read your comments on our article. Thank you.


  2. All the more reason why we need to make sure that our parks are accessible to people and welcoming to people, not just plants.

    Cities are diverse, so I guess it makes sense that a city park should be diverse also.

  3. Great post. When I lived in New York, I realizes it would never have become the powerhouse it is without Central Park. We are trying to remind people of the parks near their homes with Green Hour’s NatureFind feature!

    Anne Keisman
    Green Hour
    National Wildlife Federation

  4. Anne – Thanks for mentioning the NatureFind feature. Green Hour is a great program. And I think you’re right – its almost impossible to imagine Manhattan without Central Park.

  5. The current economic crisis is leading to many public parks and gardens, sports fields, children’s playgrounds and school playing fields in Europe’s towns and cities being used for building projects, turned into car parks or enclosed for other private commercial use and lost forever. This trend to deplete urban green space, the lungs of our cities, in an era of global warming and population increase, is dangerous for our health and for our quality of life. We urgently need legislation at a European level to protect all urban green space.

    Colette Crielesi
    The Society for the Protection of Urban Green Space (Europe)

  6. […] > As blogs have proliferated some have begun to deal with health and places. Below I list a sampling of the range of such sites, many dealing with health issues as part of a larger interest in topics such as urban development or housing. They are in alphabetical order. City Parks Blog (https://cityparksblog.org/) is the blog of the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence and the City Parks Alliance. One of the interests of the center is in health: https://cityparksblog.org/2009/01/06/parks-mediate-our-urban-mental-health/ […]

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