People living in urban areas tend to report greater wellbeing if they have parks and gardens nearby, says a new study from the UK that suggests green spaces have a positive impact on mental health in cities.

Mathew White and colleagues from the University of Exeter Medical School’s European Centre for Environment & Human Health, in Truro, Cornwall, write about their findings in a paper due to be published online this week in the journal Psychological Science.

They describe how they examined data from a national survey that followed UK households over time, and even after taking into account differences in income, marital status, employment, physical health, and type of housing, they found city dwellers reported higher life satisfaction and less mental distress when they lived in greener areas.

Previous studies have already suggested a strong link between living in or near greener areas and wellbeing.

For example, one from The Netherlands that assessed how GP-classified illnesses related to green spaces in their patients’ living environment, showed green spaces are linked to better health, and better mental health in particular, while another analysis of 10 UK studies found a dose-response relationship between spending time in green spaces and better mental health.

But much of the evidence linking green space to better health and wellbeing is not able to say whether living in greener areas influences wellbeing or whether people with greater wellbeing tend to move to greener areas.

So White and colleagues overcame this limitation by looking at data gathered from repeated observations over 18 years, collected every year from 1991 to 2008 from over 5,000 households and 10,000 adults taking part in the British Household Panel Survey.

From the survey data they used two main measures of psychological health: life satisfaction as a measure of wellbeing, and the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ) scale as a more experiential marker of psychological ill-health.

To obtain information about green spaces, they used a method that classifies at high geographical resolution how land is used across England, plus a system that reports small area statistics (Generalised Land Use Database applied to 32,482 Lower-layer Super Output Areas, LSOAs).

Their results show, even after adjusting for other possible influencers like income, marital status, employed/unemployed, physical health, type of housing and crime rates, that people in urban areas are happier when they have more green spaces nearby. This were indicated by lower scores for mental distress (GHQ scale) and significantly higher wellbeing scores (life satisfaction), compared to when they lived in areas with less green spaces.

White says in a statement that they were surprised by how big the impact of living in a greener area has on wellbeing, compared with other well-known significant factors like being married or having a job.

“We’ve found that living in an urban area with relatively high levels of green space can have a significantly positive impact on wellbeing, roughly equal to a third of the impact of being married,” says White.

He and his colleagues also estimate that the effect of living in greener urban areas is about one tenth of the impact of having a job (as opposed to being unemployed).

“These kinds of comparisons are important for policymakers when trying to decide how to invest scarce public resources, such as for park development or upkeep, and figuring out what ‘bang’ they’ll get for their buck”, says White.

It could also be important for “psychologists, public health officials and urban planners who are interested in learning about the effects that urbanisation and city planning can have on population health and wellbeing,” he adds.

He explains that while their findings don’t prove that moving to a greener area increases people’s happiness, it is consistent with experiments that show spending short periods of time in greener spaces improves mood and thinking skills.

The effect on any individual may be small, says White, but when you scale it up to society at large, it could be substantial.

In the following video, White describes how he and the team went about their study.

Investigating the impacts of urban green spaces on wellbeing

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD