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Access to parks and trees prolongs life

Researchers have found that green spaces in cities are good for city dwellers’ health. Image courtesy of GREEN SURGE

Urban planners should be given guidelines to include a minimum amount of green space in cities, according to researchers who have found that exposure to parks and trees helps to prolong life, improve mental health and even increase the birthweight of babies.

Professor Mark Nieuwenhuijsen from the Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL) in Barcelona, Spain, says that access to nature does not merely top up your wellbeing, but it might actually be a necessary condition for good health.

‘Lack of green space causes detrimental health effects,’ he said. ‘Green space is necessary for healthy psychophysiological functioning (and) there could be a set level for good health.’

This is important as more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a figure which is set to grow more than 1 % per year between now and 2030. However, there is currently no agreement on just how much greenery cities should contain for optimal health.

‘How much green space do you need? There are questions still remaining.’

Professor Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, CREAL, Spain

Prof. Nieuwenhuijsen coordinates the EU-funded PHENOTYPE project, which is aiming to build up the evidence base for so-called urban greening by understanding how exactly it can influence your health and why. The idea is to feed into decisions made by landscape architects, urban planners and policymakers.

‘At the moment there are no guidelines for green space. It would be nice to be able to give more information to urban planning to make sure that there’s provision of green space. How much green space do you need? There are questions still remaining.’

PHENOTYPE researchers are conducting studies of the health effects of green space in four different parts of Europe: Lithuania, the Netherlands, the UK and Spain. So far they have found that an increase in surrounding greenness leads to higher birth weight for babies, reduced blood pressure during pregnancy, and lower obesity levels in children.

They have also found that an increase in surrounding greenness is associated with better mental health and self-perceived physical health.

However, the project is also uncovering suggestions that not all greenery is equal. Prof. Nieuwenhuijsen says that being surrounded by greenery, such as living on streets lined with trees or being able to see vegetation from your office window, may have greater health benefits than having access to a park.

Obesity

As for why it is good for you, initial indications are that it is more complicated than the fact that living close to a park could encourage people to take more exercise and lead an active lifestyle.

In a study of coronary artery patients in Kaunas, Lithuania, researchers found that people benefitted more from walking in parks than when they did the same amount of exercise but walked on busy urban streets.

Prof. Nieuwenhuijsen says that there is some good evidence that the reason behind this effect could be a reduction in stress levels. ‘There are some studies that show a reduced blood flow in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (which controls stress) when people are exposed to green space.’

Other mechanisms could include a reduction in air pollution and an increase in social contacts.

While the exact mechanisms are still under investigation, Prof. Nieuwenhuijsen believes that humans are hard-wired to appreciate the benefits of vegetation.

‘For thousands of years we’ve been living in nature. Our bodies are geared to green space.’

Gallery - urban greening in practice

  • Given that urban greening is good for us, how can we put it into practice? Researchers in the GREEN SURGE project are working on guidelines that city planners can use to ensure that everyone in cities has access to green space, regardless of their socio-economic background. For example, they are investigating which groups of city dwellers use different types of greenery, such as urban farms, urban wildlife reserves and parks. Image courtesy of GREEN SURGE
  • One way of increasing greenery in a city is to use vegetation to form noise-blocking partitions. The HOSANNA project conducted listening experiments around different structures in Lyon, France, to see how much people noticed unwanted noise – such as traffic – compared to pleasant noises – such as birdsongs or moving water. They then created a computer model to predict which barriers would best keep out unwanted noise. Image courtesy of HOSANNA
  • Roofs are ripe for adding greenery and can have the bonus of increasing the biodiversity of a city. The EU-funded TURAS project is testing green roofs that feature wildflowers typical of east London on post-industrial brownfield sites instead of the common stonecrop plant, which is the standard practice today. Both help manage stormwater but wildflowers help restore the natural biodiversity of an area. Image courtesy of TURAS
  • The brown-banded carder bee – one of the UK conservation priority species – has shown up in the Barking Riverside Development in east London after the TURAS project brought in green roofs, landscaping and even one of the largest ‘bee hotels’ according to the Guinness Book of Records. The 16-square-metre nesting site made of bamboo and wood attracts solitary bees, insects that do not form colonies and make up approximately 90 % of the UK bee population. Image courtesy of TURAS

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