The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS - A patch of greenery isn't just another pretty space. A growing body of research is showing that natural settings provide tangible mental health benefits.
Children are better able to shrug off stress, and better able to concentrate, when they have contact with natural surroundings, studies show. Adults are less overwhelmed by their problems when there's green space near their inner-city homes.
And nature's effects can appear even in passing: Scenic, forested parkways may reduce the frustration of commuting, compared with cluttered urban roads.
Those are just some pluses for individuals. Research suggests societal benefits, too, including less crime, and more resident interaction, when nature is an inner-city neighbor.
Civic planners have long considered the inclusion of nature into everyday settings as a theoretical ideal - and more recently it was documented to be a human preference, says Jack Nasar, a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State University. "The newer work," Nasar adds, "is starting to say that vegetation is not only preferred, but it's physically restorative."
And the concrete benefits of less concrete are being found in a host of circumstances.
"I think we're on the cusp of showing just how pervasively nature matters to our health," says researcher Frances Kuo, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In a series of experiments with children, Kuo and colleagues Andrea Faber Taylor and William Sullivan have shown a link between nearby nature and attentional skills. In one study a few years ago, among 169 urban children, girls tended to score better on tests of self - including skills such as concentration and ability to resist impulse - when mothers reported more natural views from the home.
But the effect was not found in boys, Kuo says of the research, led by Taylor. "We thought it might be because the boys are not home very much," compared with girls, who play more often at home. "And everything we've done since seems to be confirming that."
Instead of just asking how natural the immediate surroundings of the children's homes were, later research asked parents to characterize the greenness of the place where their children played most often. "The place they actually play in - that very strongly and consistently predicts how well they're doing," Kuo said.
One study of attentional skills focused on children with attention deficit disorder. Parents of the 7- to 12-year-olds in that study reported less severe attention difficulties when their kids had spent playtime in a natural area, rather than other settings. The greener a child's play area, the less severe the attention problems, the data showed.
Newer, not-yet-published research helps nail down the nature-attention connection, said Kuo, who with Sullivan founded their university's Human-Environment Research Laboratory. Instead of relying on parents' reports, the new research tested children's ability to focus on a specific task, she said. Again, nature helped.
A complementary study, using subjects who were enlisted through the Internet, found that nature could exert its positive effect on a broad population of youngsters with attention-deficit problems. The benefits were detected in kids from 5 to 18 years old, in boys as well as girls, in every income bracket studied, across all ranges of symptom severity, and for children with a variety of co-occurring behavioral problems, Kuo said.
Also, the effect was found not just in big cities - where a patch of green can be a novelty - but in rural areas. "We found it pretty much everywhere we looked," Kuo said. The study's publication is pending in the American Journal of Public Health.
Research from Cornell University has likewise found an impact of green space in rural areas - in this case, on children's stress levels. That study assessed exposure to nature based on number of indoor plants, amount of nature seen in window views, and whether the child's home has a yard of grass, dirt or concrete. Among 337 children in grades 3 to 5, those in homes with more nature inside and out appeared to be less affected by stress in their lives.
And the more nature, the better. "The data ... suggest that there is little `ceiling effect' with respect to the benefits of exposure to the natural environment," researchers Nancy Wells and Gary Evans wrote last spring in the journal Environment and Behavior. "Even in a setting with a relative abundance of green landscape, more appears to be better when it comes to bolstering children's resilience against stress or adversity."
Green space offers advantages to adults as well as children, research from the Illinois lab has shown. For instance:
-Among residents of a Chicago housing project, those who lacked nearby nature saw their troubles as more severe, longer-lasting, and more intractable. Those residents appeared less able to focus on addressing major life challenges. The study encompassed 145 residents assigned to different apartments in the housing project, where buildings were identical but surroundings were not.
-Separate data from the same residents showed higher levels of aggression and violence in the people with the more barren surroundings.
Results from these two studies appear related to mental fatigue, the researchers reported. Such fatigue can affect how well people fend off unproductive impulses, handle conflict, and keep a lid on their tempers, Kuo said.
-Lower crime rates appear to accompany buildings with more natural surroundings. Among 98 apartment buildings in another Chicago project, the greener the surroundings, the fewer violent crimes - and the fewer property crimes - reported, researchers found.
While mental fatigue's apparent link to aggression may explain some of the crime difference, another force seems to be at work, Kuo said - the fact that green spaces can act as "people magnets."
"In an inner-city area, where apartments are pretty small or crowded, if the green space is at all habitable ... people go out there, they start to occupy those spaces, they get to know their neighbors. And that basically sets up an informal sort of neighborhood watch," she explains.
Yet nature doesn't have to be in the neighborhood to promote mental well-being, other research shows. Roadside green space can benefit commuters, Ohio State's Nasar and colleague Jean Marie Cackowski reported last fall in Environment and Behavior.
The team first subjected 106 college students to various stressors in the lab, then measured anger levels. Next the subjects watched one of three videos of drives, one in traffic on a scenic parkway; another on a garden highway with few manmade structures; and the third on a highway with little vegetation. Researchers measured anger levels again, as well as the students' frustration levels. Those subjects who viewed the most natural scenery showed less frustration.
Green spaces may help people mentally by providing a sense of control in their lives, Nasar said. "Nearby nature is positive even if you don't use it; if it's something you know is there, as kind of an escape, you feel better."
For drivers actually on the road, Nasar suggested alleviating frustration by taking safe opportunities - such as while stopped in traffic or at a red light - to shift attention to any greenery in view.
Kuo said people should experiment with daily doses of greenery. "We're seeing that amazingly you can detect effects even after not very much exposure. Even 20 minutes in a somewhat green place seems to be better than the same 20 minutes indoors."
For details about green-space studies by the Human- Environment Research Laboratory, visit www.herl.uiuc.edu
(c) 2004, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.