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Moving to a greener urban area is associated with improved mental health, study finds

This is one of the first studies to look at the effect of green space on city dwellers’ mental health over a multiyear period of time.

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Research has found that people report being happier and healthier when they live in proximity to parks, gardens and other green spaces.

Moving within an urban area to a neighborhood with more green space is associated with a sustained improvement in mental health, according to a study published earlier this month by a team of British researchers in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

The study also found that relocating to a neighborhood with less green space had no long-term effect on mental health, either positive or negative.

Other research has found that people report being happier and healthier when they live in proximity to parks, gardens and other green spaces. But this is one of the first studies to look at the effect of green space on city dwellers’ mental health over a multiyear period of time.

“These findings are important for urban planners thinking about introducing new green spaces to our towns and cities, suggesting they could provide long-term and sustained benefits for local communities,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Ian Alcock, in a prepared statement. Alcock is a research fellow at the University of Exeter Medical School.

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As background information provided by Alcock and his colleagues points out, depression is now the leading cause of disability in middle- to high-income countries — a trend that may be related to urbanization. Almost 78 percent of people in developed countries live in urban areas, where access to green space is often minimal.

Methods and findings

For the study, Alcock and his colleagues used data collected between 1991 and 2008 from 1,000 urban-dwelling people who had participated for five consecutive years in the British Household Panel Survey. They identified two categories among those participants: those who had moved to a greener urban area and those who had moved to a less green urban area between the second and third years of the five years of the study.

(Interestingly, most people in both groups said they moved in order to live in a larger home. Only four participants cited increased green space as the reason for their move.)

The researchers found — after adjusting for a variety of factors, such as employment history, education and marital status — that those people who had moved to greener neighborhoods were more likely to experience a significant improvement in their mental health for each of the first three years after the move.

People who had moved to less green areas, on the other hand, experienced no significant improvement in mental health. But they didn’t suffer a drop in mental health, either — except for a brief period before they made the move. That dip shifted back to baseline once the move was completed.

It could be that the anticipation of moving to a less green area had a negative impact on mental health, suggest Alcock and his colleagues in their paper. Or the decline in mental health may have precipitated the move itself.

The study revealed another intriguing detail: The improvement in mental health among the people who moved to more green space was lower among those who had relocated to areas where the mean level of education was higher than in the participants’ previous neighborhood.

This negative relationship, write Alcock and his colleagues, “may reflect increased stress from living among a new peer group of higher socio-economic status, but this is highly speculative at this stage.”

Findings may not transfer to U.S.

The study has all sorts of limitations, of course. The subsample of participants in the British Household Panel Survey that was used in this study, for example, may not be representative of adults in the U.K.

And, of course, these findings may not be at all transferable to the U.S.

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Further research is needed, write Alcock and his colleagues, to determine “why these effects occur and just how long they may last, and also why the reverse situation was not observed, that is, people who moved to less green areas did not show enduring negative impacts.”

In the meantime, however, they hope their findings will “aid policy makers and urban planners interested in exploring whether ‘green infrastructure,’ such as parks and green corridors, produces mental health benefits to local populations.”

You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Environmental Science & Technology webpage.