A team of academic researchers, landscape architects and artists have come together to look at how nature in cities affects mental wellbeing.
Researchers at King's College London, landscape architects J & L Gibbons and art foundation Nomad Projects have used smartphone-based technology to assess the relationship between nature in cities and mental wellbeing in real time.
Not surprisingly, they found that being outdoors, seeing trees, hearing birdsong, seeing the sky and feeling in contact with nature were associated with higher levels of mental wellbeing.
But they also found that the beneficial effects of nature were especially evident in individuals with greater levels of impulsivity, who are at greater risk of mental health issues.
The researchers developed a smartphone-based app, Urban Mind, which monitored 108 people who collectively completed 3,013 assessments over a one-week period.
In each assessment, participants answered several questions about their current environment and momentary mental wellbeing. GPS-based geotagging was used to monitor their exact location.
The results showed significant immediate associations with mental wellbeing for several natural features: trees, the sky and birdsong. Significantly, the improvement was still evident several hours later.
“These findings suggest that short-term exposure to nature has a measurable beneficial impact on mental wellbeing,” said Dr Andrea Mechelli, Department of Psychosis Studies, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King's College London.
The investigators were interested in whether the beneficial effects of nature might vary from one individual to another, depending on their risk of developing poor mental health.
To assess this, each participant was rated on "trait impulsivity" – a psychological measure of a tendency to behave with little forethought or consideration of the consequences, and a predictor of higher risk of developing addictive disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, antisocial personality disorder and bipolar disorder.
This revealed that the beneficial impact of nature on mental wellbeing was greater in people with higher levels of trait impulsivity and a higher risk of developing mental health issues.
“The interaction of this effect with trait impulsivity is intriguing, as it suggests that nature could be especially beneficial to those individuals who are at risk of poor mental health,” said Mechelli.
“From a clinical perspective, we hope this line of research will lead to the development of low-cost scalable interventions aimed at promoting mental health in urban populations.”
Johanna Gibbons and Neil Davidson, landscape architects at J & L Gibbons, say their findings provide a much-needed evidence base for the benefits of nature within urban centres. “From the perspective of urban planning and design, we hope the results will inform future investments and policies, helping build healthier cities,” they said.