When we think of a city, we don’t necessarily think about its parks. Instead, the metro areas, shopping opportunities, entertainment venues and other aspects come to mind. However, even though parks and other natural areas are a relatively small component of modern urban areas, the impact that these features have on the urban population is enormous.
Now, those outside the urban design industry might assume that these benefits largely have to do with wildlife diversity, better air quality and other environmental factors. It’s true that these aspects all have a positive effect on the environment and the city’s residents. However, the benefits go much deeper than environmental concerns. As you’ll see, natural landscapes have startlingly profound effects on the physical and mental health of the people that live and work around them.
Improvements to Cognitive Function, Judgment and More
Numerous studies have shown that parks and other natural settings within an urban environment have a large impact on mood, stress levels, cognitive function and even impulse control. In one such study, conducted by the University of Michigan, participants were asked to take a 50- to 55-minute walk in either a park or an urban area. Once the walk was completed, the participants then had to complete a series of memory tasks. Those who went for a walk in the park showed significantly increased performance compared to those who walked in urban areas, regardless of variables like the subject’s mood or the current weather conditions.
According to another study published in PLOS ONE, natural settings significantly improved impulse control. In this study, participants were asked to look at images from one of three categories: natural, urban and geometric shapes. After looking at the images, researchers asked each participant whether they would prefer a smaller amount of money immediately or a larger amount sometime in the future — $10 today versus $100 next week, as an example. Those who looked at natural images were far more likely to choose the larger amount of money in the future.
Why does a difference in setting have such a large influence on the brain? The short answer is that urban settings are mentally exhausting compared to natural areas, which have a restorative effect. To put this into perspective, think of all the stimuli that you’d normally see and interact with in a busy metropolitan area: pedestrians, snippets of overheard conversation, loud cars, bright advertisements and even the road signs and directions you need to think about constantly as you navigate the city. By contrast, there are very few distracting or attention-grabbing obstacles in natural areas, which means that your brain gets a much-deserved break.
Cities with Green Spaces are Healthier
Obesity — and everything that comes along with it, including conditions like heart disease and diabetes — is continually on the rise. Part of that is because many people don’t have access to places where they can get some exercise while enjoying the outdoors. Plus, in many metropolitan areas, it is much easier to take the bus or call a taxi rather than dealing with the bustle and stress of the busy sidewalks.
That’s where landscape architects come in. Even simple improvements, like bike trails and hiking paths can impact the health of an entire city — especially if those greenways are designed with commuters in mind. Add parks and other recreational areas, and the city’s residents will not only have a healthy way to commute, but also healthier recreational opportunities, too.
If you’re wondering just how much these types of improvements help physical health, research by Governing.com shows that in 2010, half of the top 10 healthiest urban areas were also those that had the largest numbers of people walking and biking to work each day.
The positive results of natural settings on the health and well-being of urban residents is enormous, but at the same time, vastly underestimated by city planners and engineers around the United States. Landscape architects however, have the ability to not only bring attention to the benefits of urban green spaces, but also to create the natural amenities that will improve the overall physical and mental health of an entire city.