The Feel Good Factor
Mentally Significant Area. Credit: TRCA

Take a walk in a park. It’s something many of us intuitively do when we’re feeling anxious, which, as COVID-19 courses through our lives, is a growing collective emotional state. Nature is even something doctors have begun prescribing. But are all parks created equal in their benefits to our psychological well-being?

Pioneering research from the 1990s showed how exposure to nature—even getting a glimpse of it out of a window—could reduce stress, improve concentration, and help us heal faster. However, this research often painted nature with a broad brush: green space was green space whether it was a wild space or a treed lawn.

Recent research has been going deeper by exploring people’s response to different natural environments. Studies have looked at the length of time spent in biodiverse areas (the longer time the greater the positive effect), the types of vegetation present (bright flowers were stimulating, green plantings were soothing), and whether the presence of park furniture like benches reduced the well-being impacts of natural areas (it didn’t).

Canoeing the Humber River in Toronto. Credit: Park People
Canoeing the Humber River in Toronto. Credit: Park People

Overall, the research has found that people report a greater sense of well-being in areas that they perceive to be more biodiverse—a finding that has deep implications for how we plan and engage people in urban biodiversity.

The importance of access to nature and biodiversity for our mental health becomes even more urgent in light of COVID-19. As the pandemic increased stress and severed personal support networks for many, half of Canadians reported worsening mental health and the Canadian Mental Health Association warned of a potential “echo pandemic” of mental illness.

People were left trying to balance government direction to “stay home” with a desire to get some fresh air and clear their heads. A global survey of 2,000 people found mental and physical health were key drivers of public space use during the pandemic. The same survey found that people took refuge in places close to home, highlighting the pressing need to ensure natural areas are equitably distributed throughout our cities.

A walk in the woods. Credit: Park People.
A walk in the woods. Credit: Park People.
A new frontier

The benefits of biodiversity are often couched in environmental impacts and ecosystem services—the work that natural areas do to help clean the air, provide food, mitigate flooding, control extreme temperatures, and more. Viewing nature as green infrastructure is critical, but it misses how these same spaces are also psychological infrastructure.

“The intersection of the richness of life on earth with human well-being is now well established in science and is fast becoming an imperative in design and planning practice,” said Nina-Marie Lister, Associate Professor and Director of the Ecological Design Lab at Ryerson University, who added that the area is a “new frontier.”

“Never before have our parks and public green spaces been more important to city dwellers, especially in terms of the mental health and wellness benefits of urban nature,” she said. “From birdsong to sunshine, wildflowers and shady walks, we now know that the ability to safely access the outdoors is a critical necessity—and a vital prescription for wellness.”

“The sooner we recognize that we take psychological solace being in nature, the better we are able to protect nature for our own well-being,” she added.

Don Carruthers Den Hoed, a researcher at Mount Royal University who also manages the Canadian Parks Collective for Innovation and Leadership, has conducted his own studies on the connection between biodiversity and well-being. He argued that the well-being narrative can be a “doorway” through which to get more people involved in conversations about parks and biodiversity, noting the Canadian Index of Well-being as a model for how to talk about the multiple benefits of parks.

Understanding how parks contribute to Index areas like leisure and environment are a “no-brainer,” Carruthers Den Hoed said. But what about democratic engagement and community vitality? Through the Index, cities can make the case that volunteer stewardship programs aren’t just about natural restoration work, he said, but also about strengthening community vitality and well-being.

Special bird area. Credit: Park People
Special bird area. Credit: Park People
Education, restoration, and well-being: a win-win-win

The impacts of well-being and biodiversity often depend as much on people’s perceptions as on actual levels of biodiversity present in a natural area. For example, one 2012 study found people reported high levels of well-being in areas they perceived to be more natural, even if their perception did not align with actual levels of biodiversity.

This leads to an opportunity, the researchers pointed out. Closing the gap between perception and reality through natural education and stewardship initiatives could “unlock win-win scenarios” that “can maximize both biodiversity conservation and human well-being.”

In other words, the more we improve the biodiversity of our city and provide people ways to learn and steward these areas, the more people are able to appreciate natural spaces and the better they will feel as a result.

Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote of this reciprocal relationship between land stewardship and human well-being in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, which weaves together Indigenous knowledge and natural science.

“Restoring land without restoring relationship is an empty exercise,” she wrote. “It is relationship that will endure and relationship that will sustain the restored land. Therefore, reconnecting people and the landscape is as essential as reestablishing proper hydrology or cleaning up contaminants. It is medicine for the earth.”

A missed opportunity?

Lister views the public health and well-being impacts of biodiversity as a “missed opportunity” in Canada. “For a country rich in biodiversity, we are behind on protection strategies that can improve human well-being. I think it’s an urgent necessity to put biodiversity and health together in our public policies.”

Carruthers Den Hoed pointed out that park managers often speak about the spiritual benefits of nature and yet “that’s not mentioned in any management plans. It’s one of the really important values people come to nature for and yet it’s just kind of shuffled to the side of the table.”

Our review of Canadian biodiversity strategies found that while they mention the human well-being benefits of biodiversity, they do so often only in general terms rather than in policy or recommended actions.

Reclining under a tree. Credit: Park People
Reclining under a tree. Credit: Park People

However, that doesn’t mean cities aren’t thinking about the connection between biodiversity and public health. Recognizing the scientific link between mental health and biodiversity, Vanessa Carney, Calgary’s Landscape Analysis Supervisor, said that one of the goals of the city’s work mapping ecological networks “is to help find ways to expand Calgarians’ access to park spaces to include more easily accessible nature experiences.”

The well-being benefits of experiencing biodiversity and nature raise important questions about equitable access to these spaces—especially given rising mental health pressures due to COVID-19.

As health researcher Nadha Hassen found, racial and socioeconomic inequities in access to quality green spaces can be a determinant of mental health outcomes. “In urban settings, neighbourhoods with low-income, newcomer, and racialized populations tend to have lower access to available, good quality green spaces compared to other groups that are higher income or white,” she wrote.

Equity is a “massive piece of work,” Carruthers Den Hoed noted. Indeed, equity is a missing lens from many biodiversity strategies. He argued that equity should not just be about access (do people have nearby nature to enjoy?), but about inclusion (how involved are people in shaping those natural spaces?).

“Where’s the equity focusing on the decision-making, the employment, the economic benefits of the things that are happening in that park?” Carruthers Den Hoed said. “That’s where I think the most interesting work will go.”