A person does yoga overlooking the skyline of Hong Kong.
A person does yoga A person does yoga overlooking the skyline of Hong Kong. © Chun Kit Chong/TNC Photo Contest 2018

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Sanity and the City: Nature Crucial for Mental Health in an Urban Century

TNC-led study underlines psychological benefits of urban green spaces as more people live in cities than ever before

On an increasingly urban planet, human society could face escalating mental health issues unless steps are taken to ensure greater access to nature and green spaces in our cities, according to new research led by international environmental nonprofit The Nature Conservancy (TNC) alongside the University of Virginia and Stockholm Resilience Center.

Published today in the journal Sustainable Earth, the paper analyzes a range of economic, health, and environmental studies to suggest that the same extreme potential for human interaction that makes cities such exciting hubs for productivity, creativity, and innovation is also increasingly contributing to what the authors refer to as an “urban psychological penalty” of escalating stress and other mental health disorders.

Specifically, they found that 46 percent of humans are already living at the kind of population densities where studies have shown there are mental health impacts – and that this trend is only likely to accelerate as urbanization continues worldwide, with an additional 2.4 billion people predicted to be living in cities and towns by 2050.

In the face of this growing trend, nature provides hope – previous research has shown that even brief interactions with the natural world can have tangible mental health benefits, alleviating symptoms of this urban psychological penalty.  However, data suggest that just 13 percent of the world’s urban populations currently live sufficiently close to nature to experience these benefits.

“We are living in the urban century, and we are witness to the greatest mass-migrations in human history, as people move from the countryside into towns and cities,” said Dr. Robert McDonald, the study’s principal author and lead scientist for TNC’s Global Cities program.  “In this urban century, our findings provide an urgent reminder of both the potential mental health implications of more densely-packed cities, and the indispensable role of nature in helping solve these issues.”

The role of trees in mitigating heat stress in urban neighbourhoods has been a focal topic in 2018, following a summer of unusually intense heatwaves across many regions of the Northern Hemisphere.  Less has been discussed about the wider importance of access to nature and green spaces in cities, beyond merely as recreational amenities.

“We hope this study will act as something of a wake-up call for local, regional, and national governments, as well as architects and city planners, about the vital importance of designing nature into the very heart of our growing cities,” McDonald adds. “In an urban century, it’s more vital than ever that our concrete jungles have a green soul.”

The paper cites a number of examples of efforts governments are making to bring nature closer to urban citizens’ daily lives, including Green Prescriptions and the Biophilic Cities Network.  To learn more about how TNC is working around the world to encourage healthier cities that bring people closer to nature, visit: https://www.nature.org/en-us/what-we-do/our-priorities/build-healthy-cities/  

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R. I. McDonald, T. Beatley, T. Elmqvist. The green soul of the concrete jungle: the urban century, the urban psychological penalty, and the role of nature. Sustainable Earth.

https://doi.org/10.1186/s42055-018-0002-5

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.