Under the Hood

Can Biodiversity In Urban Neighborhoods Be Related To Mental Health?

Acquiring properties within a concrete jungle may be the goal of every person trying to make a mark in this world, however, there are downsides to this aspiration. Particularly, in terms of the barriers that it places between man and nature, causing mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and psychosis, among other disorders. 

Losing contact with the outdoors has therefore become commonplace over the last century as a result of living in modern spaces. Spending more time indoors, being glued to screens and sedentary lifestyles have contributed to this disengagement with nature. 

Several studies have demonstrated over the years that air, water and soil pollution in cities leads to psychiatric disorders, hence introducing nature within urban landscapes could be a way out of the chaos, according to experts. The current generation has distanced themselves from natural spaces due to negative experiences with either pollution or due to the seclusion of forested habitats that make them worry for their safety. 

As of 2018, 55 percent of the global population was inhabiting urban spaces across the world, according to a report by the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Projections for the year 2050 estimated that 2.5 billion people in the world or 68 percent of the world's population will occupy urban areas. 

While natural spaces continue to decrease within cities, there is an urgent need to address the impact of losing contact with nature on mental health. In a reflective piece for The Conversation, Dr. Zoe Myers, author of “Wildness and Wellbeing: Nature, Neuroscience, and Urban Design,” suggested building greener neighborhoods through constructing small biodiverse patches, as opposed to long green corridors with logistical challenges. 

“If the evidence shows that nature contact helps to buffer against negative impacts from other environmental predictors of health, then access to these landscapes can be considered a matter of environmental justice,” Greg Bratman, lead author of a study published in the journal of Science Advances in 2019, said.

Bratman is a former postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University and currently employed as an assistant professor at the University of Washington. Both universities contributed to the aforementioned paper titled “Nature and Mental Health: An Ecosystem Service Perspective,”  which explained the various ways in which nature influences one’s mental health negatively, by quoting several studies.  

“Nature experience has been associated with improved sleep and reductions in stress, as assessed by self-report and various physiological measures and biomarkers of acute and chronic stress,” the authors stated in their paper. 

“These impacts on sleep and stress may entail decreased risk for mental illness, as sleep problems and stress are major risk factors for mental illness, especially depression.”

The research also elaborated on urban landscape models that have been adapted by city planners in the past to improve people’s general health.“Examples include urban tree canopy restoration to improve air quality, the siting of new park locations to improve physical activity, and efforts to use environmental investments to advance health equity,” the authors explained.

urban park If the health effects of nature could be quantified based on quality, quantity, frequency, and duration of exposure, doctors might prescribe urban patients a "dose" of nature just as they would prescribe a drug. Reuters