Green Spaces for Mental Health

by | Mar 10, 2024

Three years ago, I had a pretty strange experience after moving into a new apartment. I started feeling depressed, having trouble breathing and getting symptoms of high blood pressure. It left me very startled when I went to the doctor, and found out that my health was absolutely fine. Sometime later, I realized something about my living place: The common living space was converted into an extra bedroom by the owner to get more rent. It hindered air circulation which caused me mood swings, stress and accelerated my frustration. This experience got me thinking about how urban environments have an impact on our mental health. 

The sustainability of urban areas can be enhanced by green spaces and access to transportation – as well as the practice of green architecture, home gardening, and waste management that leads to an increase in community well-being. This connection is direct, albeit very subtle. Hence, we are witnessing the emergence of innovative practices like placemaking as a way to foster sustainable urban development.

The Healing Power of the Natural Environment 

There are a few concepts out there that can help us understand how green spaces affect our daily mental health like the biophilia hypothesis, ecotherapy, psychoevolutionary theory, positive psychology and well-being theory, and restorative environment theory

Biophilia Hypothesis: Coined by Edward O. Wilson, the Biophilia Hypothesis proposes that humans have an innate and evolutionary connection to nature and other living beings. This theory suggests that being in natural environments, which are part of our ancestral heritage, can evoke positive emotional responses and promote mental well-being.

Ecotherapy: Ecotherapy is a therapeutic approach that integrates nature and outdoor activities into mental health treatment. This practice is rooted in the idea that connecting with nature can have therapeutic benefits, including reduced symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress.

Psychoevolutionary Theory: Psychoevolutionary Theory suggests that the human brain has evolved to respond positively to natural settings due to its role in human survival and well-being throughout evolutionary history. This theory posits that exposure to green spaces can evoke a sense of safety and relaxation, contributing to better mental health.

Positive Psychology and Well-being Theory: Positive psychology emphasizes the study of human strengths, virtues, and well-being. Spending time in green spaces aligns with the principles of positive psychology by promoting positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment (the PERMA model). 

Restorative Environment Theory: This theory suggests that green spaces provide opportunities for individuals to recover from stress and mental fatigue. The presence of natural elements, such as water features or lush vegetation, can enhance the restorative quality of these environments.

The green spaces need to be accessible

Urban planners and policymakers have been prioritizing green spaces in placemaking, but are they accessible to all? Accessibility is not just about being free. The accessibility of green spaces is greatly affected by the absence of well-connected streets and transportation networks. Although there are many free parks around the city of Kuala Lumpur, I can hardly go there because these areas are not linked through public transport. The abundance of green spaces in a city loses its significance if they remain out of reach for some individuals. So, access to nature should be a fundamental right for all citizens. Therefore, when building urban green spaces, inclusion is of utmost importance.

The ripple effect of tree planting 

In Kuala Lumpur, I learnt about a nonprofit organization called Free Tree Society. Here anyone can work as a volunteer to plant trees. I booked three slots to plant trees together with other volunteers, and it had a ripple effect! I thought I made a contribution to the environment but it also directly affected my mood as well for the next few weeks. 

The soothing sound of leaves rustling in the breeze, the fresh scent of the forest filling my senses, and the gentle touch of sunlight filtering through the branches made me feel eminently relaxed. It’s like nature’s own spa treatment for our mind and body. Not only does tree planting provide an opportunity for physical activity and connection with the Earth, but it also promotes mindfulness, as we focus on the simple act of nurturing a tree. The process itself is a form of therapy, as it allows us to escape the stressors of everyday life and find solace in the tranquility of nature.

However, it is extremely challenging for an individual to independently plant trees in public areas without support from community projects. Knowledge of the selection of trees, the right spaces and planting methods are crucial. It is the guiding hand of Free Tree Society that enabled me to grab a shovel, get my hands dirty, and experience the incredible relaxation of tree planting. 

Such initiatives highlight the importance of participation in nature conservation on an individual and the role of nonprofits and social enterprises to foster that culture. In order to equip individuals with the ability to construct these remarkable societal endeavors, the existence of green spaces are needed to begin with. 

Beyond the theories and scientific studies, we can feel the positive effects of green spaces in our own lives. Just think about the last time you went for a walk in a park or hiked through a forest. How did you feel? I’m willing to bet that you got into a very happy, relaxed mood. Last year, I turned my little balcony into a green corner with houseplants where I drink a cup of tea every morning. This has improved my mood significantly and helped me focus on my remote job tasks. The evidence is clear: by incorporating green spaces into our daily lives, we can nurture our mental health and create a more balanced and fulfilling existence respite from our fast-paced and technology-dominated lives. So only strategies by urban planners cannot help, we need to practice living with nature in our daily lives.

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