Green Spaces & Human Health

There is a growing body of information about the health of green spaces. What we define as green spaces are trees, parks, and gardens. It has been known for thousands of years that these amenities enriched the human condition, but during the past quarter century there is actually some “hard science” that indicates what man has figured out without science.

Benefits of Green Space

The list to the right shows some of the benefits that have recently been proven in the world’s scientific literature. If there is a single common pathway, as is often said in medicine, it probably is stress reduction. Stress contributes to a great many diseases and the degree to which stress can be reduced the better the health outcome. So seeing green spaces does reduce stress, whether it is going to the store or the dentist — enjoying the sight of green space along the road or in the office in the form of plants is soothing. The mind seems to be the main beneficiary of green space. A host of mental conditions are improved if one is in or around a verdant setting.

What Is the Evidence?

Several studies have had patients view or be in rooms with windows that allowed them to look at nature in the form of trees or gardens and compared them to other patients who viewed blank walls or pictures of trapezoidal objects in paintings. Those exposed to nature scenes had significantly improved health outcomes, including hospital costs. One investigator measured cortisol, a stress-related hormone. People living in neighborhoods with tree canopy, gardens, and parks had less cortisol in their saliva than those living in areas significantly more barren. This study was controlled for socioeconomics of the individuals, so it was not affluence, it was the actual setting in which they lived and worked that reduced the stress. Many, many studies have shown the soothing effects of natural pictures on people in stressful situations like doctor visits, hospitalization, and work.

What About Hospitals?

During most of the 20th century, hospitals were built based on three major concerns: access for patients (meaning lots of surface parking), infection control (meaning sterile everything including rooms and buildings), and big, new technology (housed in large, foreboding, box-like structures.) The emerging science and just plain common sense are changing this. However, considering the billions of dollars every year spent on new health facilities, it is regrettable that more of that money does not go into green spaces, which are known to curtail health expenditures. Fortunately the MUSC Arboretum and the creation of the Charleston Hospital District are trying to change all this.

What About Cities & Communities?

Charleston, Seabrook, and much of the South have always valued trees and parks. We are fortunate in this respect, but much still needs to be done to improve the urban landscape and to improve urban forestry, which confer health benefits and social benefits for very low costs compared to many other programs designed to improve these aspects of life. There is very good economic data that shows that investing in trees and parks is good for cities and their citizens. Even crime has been shown to drop when green spaces were developed in high crime areas. There are many benefits beyond health to communities that embrace and increase their green spaces.

The Bottom Line

One probably intuitively knows that more green space is good. Now the scientific community has proven it. As we get older we need to do all we can to see that we and those who follow us have green spaces to enhance our lives.