We know that pollution and other ecological insults cause physical illnesses and even death, but the psychological impacts of environmental degradation are less well known. While climate change is known to provoke social tensions, a growing body of evidence suggests that green spaces may improve psychological health and reduce antisocial behavior.
Green Spaces Promote Psychological Health
According to a study conducted in England by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter Medical School, simply being in proximity to nature affords a wealth of psychological benefits. The study draws upon data from more than 1,000 participants collected over five years. It was published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 2005.
What makes this study remarkable is the fact that simply living closer to green spaces has “immediate and sustained” mental health benefits. The research showed that those who moved to greener areas had improved mental well being for at least three years.
Green Spaces Reduce Criminality
A series of studies reviewed by Urban Forestry/Urban Green Research bear out the idea that green spaces are conducive to reducing criminality. Here is a convincing summary of some of the US findings:
• There is less graffiti, vandalism, and littering in outdoor spaces with natural landscapes than in comparable plant-less spaces.
• Public housing residents with nearby trees and natural landscapes reported 25% fewer acts of domestic aggression and violence.
• Public housing buildings with greater amounts of vegetation had 52% fewer total crimes, 48% fewer property crimes, and 56% fewer violent crimes than buildings with low amounts of vegetation.
• Studies of residential neighborhoods found that property crimes were less frequent when there were trees in the right-of-way, and more abundant vegetation around a house.
• In a study of community policing innovations, there was a 20% overall decrease in calls to police from the parts of town that received location-specific treatments. Cleaning up vacant lots was one of the most effective treatment strategies.
• Vegetation can be managed to create a reassuring environment, reduce fear, and increase citizen surveillance and defensible space.
Pilot studies have suggested a relationship between lack of vegetation and rates of “incivilities” or minor crimes. A survey of 31 urban sites in a California community found that 90% of the incidents of vandalism or graffiti occurred in areas without plantings compared to 10% in landscaped areas. Within Chicago public housing units during a reporting period, 90 residents reported less graffiti, vandalism, and littering in outdoor spaces containing trees and grass than in comparable, more barren spaces. Rates of social disruption and incivilities, such as the presence of noisy individuals, loitering strangers, and illegal activity, were also lower in planted areas.
The presence of nearby nature may positively influence social interactions and lessen aggressive and violent behavior. In Chicago public housing, those who had trees and grass cover outside their apartments reported significantly less aggression against their partners than did those living in areas that are no landscaped.
Rates of reported violence (mild and severe, during the year and across a lifetime) were significantly lower in the green areas than in the barren ones. Reductions in aggression and violence were 25% or more.
Two years of police data on property and violent crimes within public housing communities of inner-city Chicago found that the greener a building’s surroundings, the fewer total crimes occurred. Buildings with higher levels of vegetation recorded 52% fewer total crimes, 48% fewer property crimes, and 56% fewer violent crimes than buildings with low levels of vegetation. Even modest amounts of greenery were associated with lower crime rates.
In Tallahassee, Florida a study found that the more abundant the vegetation around a house, the less frequently property crimes occurred. A study in Portland, Oregon found that larger trees were generally more closely associated with a reduction in crime.
Environmental Degradation and Psychological Disturbance
The data from the European Centre study links living in urban areas with a “temporary decline in mental health.” It also showed that those who moved to more developed areas had an initial decline in mental health that returned to previous levels of well being after the move.
It has been widely reported that climate change can cause social tension and conflict. There is also evidence to suggest that environmental impacts like those associated with climate change are harmful to mental health.
One example comes from a study conducted in the far north where the impacts of climate change are being felt acutely. Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo Willox, found that climate change is impacting the mental and emotional health of people who live in remote northern communities. He explained that many people described feeling depressed, anxious, stressed, and even angry. Some have reported feeling a loss of their ancestral identity.
All around the world people are increasingly moving out of rural settings and into cities. Almost half of the world’s population now lives in cities. Just 60 years ago people lived in mostly rural settings and by 2030, the proportion of people living in cities will surge to 60 percent.
Rising Antisocial Behavior
Growing urbanization may in part explain increasing levels of antisocial behavior. According to a 2013 article in The Telegraph,
more than eight out of 10 people say anti-social behaviour has risen in
England and Wales over the past 12 months. Eighty-one percent of people
questioned by the Office for National Statistics (ONS),
said anti-social behavior like gang related activity had increased
across England and Wales, including 49 per cent who said it had “gone up
a lot”. Only three per cent said anti-social behaviour had gone down. Rising levels of antisocial behaviour have also been reported in other parts
of Europe and in North America.
Disconnection from Nature
People are increasingly disconnected from nature. Not only do people increasing live in cities they are visiting natural settings less often. Research in 2007 revealed that in the past couple decades recreation in nature has declined 18 – 25 percent, alongside declines in national park visitation. In one study only 26 percent of mothers said their kids play outdoors daily, while other studies show that kids spend up to six hours every day engaging with technology indoors.
This research has important implications for psychologists and urban planners. It also supports efforts to preserve existing green spaces.
In addition to combating climate change, supporting wildlife and preserving water, green places may also contribute to a healthier society.
© 2014, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.
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