Growing up in Chicago with a family full of homebodies, I rarely left the concrete jungle in my youth. Sure, Chicago is full of great parks (the city’s motto is Urbs in Horto, City in a Garden), but as someone with little hand-eye coordination, I never liked parks as a child because I associated them with how bad I was at sports! It wasn’t until I went to college in a small town in Minnesota that I really began to experience and appreciate nature. In fact, I would credit Carleton’s Cowling Arboretum with sparking my interest in and passion for the environment and sustainability. Being surrounded by 880 acres of pristine prairie is the essence of tranquility, but according to a study released last year, we as humans don’t need nearly that much green space to obtain the calming benefits of nature. At GTECH/Lots to Love we talk a lot about the impact that transforming blight into green spaces has on the health of our communities. But it also has a huge effect on our personal health, and even the way our brains work.
Last year, researchers at Penn published a study in the American Journal of Public Health in which they investigated whether viewing a greened vacant lot decreased participants’ heart rates significantly more than viewing a “regular,” blighted vacant lot or even being in an area with no vacant lots. The study was conducted in Philadelphia, which has 40,000 vacant lots but a long history of greening these land parcels. Since the early 2000s, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, through a contract with the city, has been operating a program to turn vacant and blighted properties into informal parks, with new topsoil, grass, trees and small, three-foot wooden fences. As of last May, the horticultural society was maintaining 6,500 greened lots, as well as paying neighbors a modest sum to care for 2,100 additional lots.
For the study, participants were recruited from two Philadelphia neighborhoods. One group went for a walk along a planned route in their neighborhood, passing by nongreened vacant lots while wearing GPS-enabled heart rate monitors. Three months later they did the same walk, only this time the vacant lots had been greened in the interim as described above. The second group was a control group; the vacant lots they passed in the first walk had not been greened by the time of their second walk. The results are quite significant. The average reduction in heart rate from being near the greened lots was 5.6 beats per minute (bpm) lower than when the participants were near the nongreened vacant lots, and over 2 bpm lower than when they were not near any vacant lots. The researchers conclude:
“. . . permanent downstream inflammatory changes and dysregulation of cardiovascular, neurological, and endocrine systems accumulate over a lifetime for persons repeatedly exposed to stressors in their neighborhood surroundings. Basic structural improvements to blighted neighborhood environments, such as ‘greening’ vacant lots, offers a promising and sustainable, yet underused, solution to such stressors.”
This is good news for those of us who live in cities. In a separate study published in Nature a few years back, researchers at the University of Heidelberg and McGill University found differences in brain activity between urban and non-urban dwellers. Researchers performed a stress test on participants while MRI mapped their brain activity. Urban residents showed higher activation of the amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates anxiety and fear. People who grew up in cities also were more likely to have increased activation of the anterior cingulate, a part of the brain that regulates stress. To me, this means that as cities continue to grow, green spaces are more vital than ever, a way to reduce our stress levels in fast-paced urban environments.
All this science shows that green spaces are not only good for the health of our communities, they’re good for our physical well-being. The blighted properties in our neighborhoods are untapped opportunities for better personal health. Greening these spaces doesn’t just reduce crime and increase property values. It also lowers our heart rates and stress levels, thereby making us feel calm, relaxed and happy. Plus, doing the physical work on vacant lots is great exercise! Check out Lots to Love to find a vacant lot to green in your neighborhood and start reaping all those health benefits!