BY: CAROLINE ROLF
The percentage of the world’s population living in urban places continues to grow. Currently, over half the world’s population resides in cities and that is expected to grow to nearly 70 per cent by 2050. This is a remarkable prediction, considering cities can be one of the toughest places to inhabit. They’re loud, crowded and continuously expanding, all elements that make them overwhelming and stressful. So what can we do to ensure that our mental and physical health stay in check?
Since moving to Toronto nearly four years ago, I have come to admire the amount of green space it has. There are areas hidden in between the skyscrapers and the cold concrete that are filled with trees and greenery that make me feel like I’ve escaped the city entirely. Living here makes me appreciate even the smallest green spaces among the grey urban landscape. Is it possible that these spaces of nature actually help people feel better in the fast-paced city life? Just how important is green space to the mental health of city dwellers?
There is a clear link between city life and mental illness. Compared to rural spaces, those who live in cities have higher levels of anxiety and mood disorders. A 2015 analysis of 20 separate population studies found that city living increased the chance of having mental health issues like anxiety, depression and schizophrenia, which doubles in risk for those raised in cities. Their brains showed differences in a region of the cortex that affects regulating negative emotions and stress. Researchers believe it may be more than a correlation between anxious people and their preferred dwelling or a hereditary condition. It’s a cause-and-effect relationship between environment and mind.
What is the reasoning behind these differences in the minds of city and country dwellers? Social stresses in city life may be a big factor. Living in a city means coming into contact with many more people daily than in a rural area. It can mean having less control over the amount of interacting that takes place with strangers. It could be the amount of daily hassles, like weaving through crowds or ignoring street harassment that increase the chances of an individual developing a mood disorder.
It turns out that green spaces can be the key to improving physical and mental health. Scientific studies reported that after a 90-minute walk in a natural setting (versus a city setting) participants reported a decrease of rumination – “a type of repeated brooding over negative thoughts or event that is linked to a increased risk of developing depression.” Another study investigated the relationship between mental health and blue spaces, such as lakes, rivers and other bodies of water. They found that residents of a city showed lessened signs of psychological distress when they lived within view of water.
Keep in mind that neighbourhoods and urban areas with green and blue space may have other qualities unrelated to nature that could improve the health of its citizens. Places may be more liveable for a variety of reasons and it’s worth noting that higher-income areas tend to have more green coverage than lower income neighbourhoods.
It is clear that there is a connection between good health and nature, as many people feel the benefits of spending time in nature to refresh one’s body and mind. As our population continues to grow and our cities expand to meet more demands, natural space should become a priority among other necessities. In the mean time, even simple actions like planting community gardens or vertical farms can help achieve a greener city.
Check out this urban garden city ideas.