Incorporating Nature into Urban Planning for Better Mental Health

By Nikki Harper

Staff Writer for Wake Up World

Mental health issues are a growing concern in today’s modern world. Around 450 million people suffer from mental illness of some kind, but only one in three of those people actively seek treatment [1]. We do know that interaction with nature provides benefits for mental health and being around nature has been shown to have a positive effect on those suffering form anxiety, depression and stress [2]. Formal ecotherapy programs are on the rise [3] – but in our increasingly urbanised world, how can we help people find the benefits of nature on their own doorsteps?

This is a question that researchers at the University of Washington and Stanford University recently sought to answer, and their findings have been published in the journal Science Advances.

Researchers have set out a framework to assist city planners and developers in measuring and assessing the mental health benefits of nature, and to incorporate these into city planning policies [4].

Many governments already do attempt to involve and conserve nature within cities, but typically for physical health or environmental benefits, such as using trees to absorb pollution or to lessen noise. It is hoped that the new research will help planners take mental health into consideration too, leading eventually to planning and design choices which could minimize or even head off in the first place the development of some mental health disorders for city dwellers.

The research team’s conceptual model invites planners to consider four separate points when making decisions:

  • Which elements of nature to include within a particular project
  • How much contact people can have with that nature
  • How people can interact with those natural features and
  • Evidence-based considerations of the potential benefits

The framework could also be useful in helping to prevent the removal of natural features within certain communities, as it can highlight the mental health benefits that community may lose through, for example, the removal of a nearby wooded area.

“”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,” says Greg Bratman, lead author of the research and assistant professor at the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences [1]. He adds that he hopes that the framework could eventually be used address health disparities across diverse communities.

The study involved the co-operation of more than two dozen experts in health, social care and environmental science, taking a cross-disciplinary approach towards the mental health benefits of the natural environment. To implement the study’s recommended conceptual framework would requite a shift of thinking across the urban planning environment. However, as a 2016 study published in the Lancet shows, mental health problems make up by far the leading burden of global disease [5]. If something as relatively simple as better urban planning can help to reduce that burden – and bring added environmental and physical health benefits too – then surely, it’s a shift of thinking which must be made.

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About the author:

Nikki Harper is a spiritualist writer, astrologer, and editor for Wake Up World. She writes about divination, astrology, mediumship and spirituality at Questionology: Astrology and Divination For the Modern World where you can also find out more about her work as a freelance astrologer and her mind-body-spirit writing and editing services. Nikki also runs a spiritualist centre in North Lincs, UK, hosting weekly mediumship demonstrations and a wide range of spiritual development courses and workshops.

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