Green spaces: their ability to improve mental health and why they work

Hey, friends. It’s intern Jeff here! I do a lot of science writing, so I apologize for feeling a need to cite my facts as I write them – but to not just feels wrong.

let’s talk about mental health for a second.

Did you know that approximately 20% of the adult population in the United States reports struggling with mental health? Or that this number is even higher (25%) in young adults aged 18-25 (Cherry et al. 2018)?

I may not have all of the answers to solve the mental health epidemic right now, but I do have a few ideas for how to make small steps towards making our community a better place. Like I said, I do a lot of science writing so bear with me as I nerd-out about some cool science that was done and write in a cool and hip voice.

A recent study conducted by a team of scientists in Sheffield, England, looked at the effects of urban parks and green spaces on the mental health of the city’s residents.

Let’s set the stage:

Sheffield England has a population of 513,000 and was historically an industrial city. For perspective, this is roughly double the size of greater Grand Rapids with a similar history. Just older. Sheffield, like any other city, struggles with people having limited availability to public parks or any greenspace in general.

The importance of having accessible green spaces has been heavily studied, and it was found that general health, quality of social interaction, mental fatigue, and opportunities for reflection all improve once green spaces or parks are available to people who live in cities (de Vries et al. 2003; Sullivan et al. 2004; Kuo 2001; Herzog et al. 1997).

Back to the study, this cool team of scientists wanted to know why green spaces improved people’s mental health. Specifically, what attributes made them healthy for people? Is it the quality of plants? Diversity of plants? The butterflies? Birds? Could we plant a giant field of grass and make people happier?

So the scientists went to a whole bunch of parks in Sheffield and determined how far they were from residential areas; recorded what habitat type was available (grass, trees, concrete, etc.); and how many different flowers, butterflies, and birds could be counted. At the same time, they conducted over 300 interviews with park-goers where they discussed their psychological well-being in combination with their perceptions of the local parks.

They found that residents had more cases of personal reflection, feelings of distinct identity, attachment, and continuity with their pasts when closer to parks that have more diverse plant, butterfly, and bird populations.

When you look at the residents’ perceptions of what is around them, they really don’t do a great job at identifying the different plants and animals. But there is something about natural areas and green spaces that engages their brains in an effortless and involuntary response, telling them to enjoy their surroundings, which in turn gives their conscious self a rest from their daily stressors (Fuller et al. 2007).

It is the vision of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks to establish “thriving parks and sustainable urban forests that actively support our community’s economic, environmental, and cultural health.” With almost a quarter of our country is suffering from mental illnesses that strike hard, fast, and deadly, it should be the focus of all people to do what they can to protect themselves and loved ones (Cherry et al. 2018).

Additionally, with winter upon us and Seasonal Affected Disorder (SAD) taking its hold, it is increasingly important that we get outside and enjoy our parks. The cold weather and shorter days are not something to fear as we get farther into winter.

We are Michiganders. We thrive in this weather. So let’s get outside and enjoy the snow!



Cherry, D., M. Albert, L. F. McCaig. (2018). Mental health-related physician office visits by adults 18 and
over: United States, 2012-2014. NCHS Data Brief, No. 311.
de Vries, S., R. A. Verheij, P. P. Groenewegen, P. Spreeuwenberg. 2003. Natural environments-healthy
environments? An exploratory analysis of the relationship between greenspace and health. Environ.
Plan. A 35, 1717-1731.

Fuller, R. A., K. N. Irvine, P. Devine-Wright, P. H. Warren, K. J. Gaston. (2007). Psychological benefits of
greenspace increase with biodiversity. Biology letters 3:390-394.
Herzog, T. R., A. M. Black, K. A. Fountaine, D. J. Knotts. 1997. Reflection and attentional recovery as
distinctive benefits of restorative environments. J. Environ. Psychol. 17, 165-170.
Kuo, F. E. 2001. Coping with poverty: impacts of environment and attention in the inner city. Environ.
Behav. 33, 5-34.
Sullivan, W. C., F. E. Kuo, S. F. DePooter. 2004. The fruit of urban nature: vital neighbourhood spaces.
Environmen. Behav. 36, 678-700.

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