Mental Health

By on Feb 9, 2016 in News

The understanding of our relationship with the built environment continues to evolve. The sustainability movement of the 1970s encouragurbanlivinged construction that conserved earth’s limited resources. In the 1990s, universal design motivated us to create accessible and multi-generational abodes. Now, the psychological ecosystem services movement is exploring the connection between urban environments and mental health.

According to the World Health Organization, “one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.”

While treatments are available to address mental health from the inside out, fostering mental well-being from the outside in is also a viable supplement.

By understanding how urban spaces affect our mental well-being, we may minimize negative outcomes. Thought leaders Greg Bratman and Agnes van den Berg represent two generations that are forging the path towards urban spaces that nourish the mind.

Psychological ecosystem services is a budding field of environmental psychology. Greg Bratman is a PhD candidate in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University. He seeks evidence for the impact of nature experiences on cognitive function, mood, and emotion regulation. The results of his research will be incorporated into urban design and decision-making.

Bratman explains, “This knowledge can inform the ways in which urban planners incorporate nature into cities, and provide accessible natural landscapes for urban and suburban residents.  It can also provide support for the conservation of open space and wilderness areas in policy design.”

For his recent study, Bratman analyzed the rumination patterns (repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self) of 38 people. The participants recorded their current levels of rumination and completed a brain scan. Participants were then randomly assigned to a 90-min walk. Some were assigned to a natural setting such as a park. Others strolled along a busy street and through urban corridors.

After their walks, participants completed the rumination questionnaire for a second time and underwent a second brain scan.  Bratman and his team then analyzed any differential change in nature versus urban walkers, both the self-reported (questionnaire) and in the brain scan. He focused on changes to the subgenual prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is most active during rumination.

Bratman reports, “Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment.”

The results of Bratman’s preliminary studies align with established research. Agnes van den Berg has extensively analyzed how green spaces affect mental and social health. In her paper, The Preference for Nature in Urbanized Societies: Stress, Restoration, and the Pursuit of Sustainability, van den Berg creates a bridge between dozens of international studies. She reports that nature serves an important role in psychological restoration.

“Numerous studies have demonstrated that contact with natural environments offers a relatively effective way of obtaining restoration from stress and mental fatigue compared to ordinary outdoor urban environments […] Experiments show consistently that the need for, and perceived likelihood of, restoration from mental fatigue together play a role in shaping the relative preference for natural over urban environments,” van den Berg reports.

The findings of Bratman and van den Berg are among many others in the growing field of psychological ecosystem services. The Centre for Urban Design & Mental Health (UDMH) uses such research to propel its new think tank. The group explores practical ways that academic research can help urban planners, designers, and developers. These teams can then create designs that better serve our mental health needs.

It is estimated that by 2050, two thirds of the global population will live in cities. By understanding and minimizing the adverse effects of urban living on residents, planners and designers can create future cities that foster healthier residents. To learn more, visit the curated research catalogue by UDMH.