Geeta Padmanabhan underlines how essential it is for us to take a break from the confines of our homes and workplaces to rejuvenate ourselves outdoors in green spaces such as parks or gardens. Even raising a few plants can improve the quality of our life

Go out for a walk in the park with a spring in your step. Grow plants with vigour even if all you have is a teeny bit of space. Petition officials with confidence for a park in your area. Parks, gardens and green spaces in urban areas can improve the wellbeing and quality of life of the people living there, says a University of Exeter study. The results were published in Psychological Science.

After monitoring 5000 U.K. households (10,000 adults) over 17 years between 1991 and 2008, researchers concluded that living in a greener area had a “significant positive effect” on urban dwellers. The participants were asked to report on their psychological health as they moved around the country. What was the “green space effect” on them?

Dr. Mathew White of the European Centre for the Environment and Human Health (that conducted the study) said people reported less mental distress and higher life satisfaction when they lived in greener areas. This was true even when participants' income, employment, marital status, physical health and housing type changed, his team said. The positive green space effect equalled a third of the impact of being (newly?) married, a tenth of the impact of having a job.

Prof. Jamuna Duvvuru, Department of Psychology, SV University, Tirupati, agrees completely. “We live in densely populated cities, lead busy lifestyles. Being able to get outdoors and spend time in parks, woods and gardens is a great way to escape everyday stress.” The relationship between the green colour and mood elevation is an established one, she said. Green means freshness, everything aesthetic. After a bleak winter, when plants sprout leaves, we welcome it with festivals. Enough has been written/sung about the “joy of spring, hope it brings”, she said.

Mental wellbeing

Shaking off routine, being in a new environment, doing something different — these are means to recharge oneself, she asserted. That's what tourism is about. And if you choose to be surrounded by greenery, it is added oxygen. “Research shows 94 per cent of people who get outdoors for “green exercise” feel it benefits their mental health.”

Jaya Sundaram, an avid gardener, carries a few of her favourite plants when she visits her family in Bengaluru. “I can't speak for others, but I owe my peace of mind to the plants I grow in my garden,” she said. Jaya has invested in a plot of land to grow a permanent herb garden. “When I travel, my children rush to cover my eyes if flowering plants come into view,” she laughed. “I might just spring out of the car to collect a branch.”

There is proof for the green space effect, she said. People in neighbouring areas visit Thirukkattur believing in the therapeutic value of its water, soil and greenery. Tribal people living in forests have claimed on camera that they rarely fall ill despite relative poverty — the green forest and the unpolluted open spaces keep them healthy. You'll rarely see anyone wearing an XXL jeans in Denver (Colorado), known for its vast lakes and green commons. Neighbouring Boulder has been declared the skinniest city, with just 12.1 per cent of residents considered obese.

“Evidence on the restorative effects of green spaces and contact with nature is more compelling than evidence on its potential benefits for physical health,” says Ciria-open space. It is well known that access to or views of open space speed up patient recovery. People living near vegetation and/or open space seem to handle major life issues better. “Setting up a bio-dynamic garden is our project to help people with mental health issues,” said a volunteer. “The garden works wonders no matter what season, what time of the day.” “Ecotherapy” is the green agenda for mental health whereby people are engaged in green exercise activities as part of the treatment.

Positive effect

The positive effect of urban green spaces may be small on individuals, but for society at large, it is substantial, say psychologists. Urban planners should take its impact on public health into account. “The findings 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,” said Dr. White.

Who knows, creating green oases in city centres might help reduce road rage, and improve traffic rules compliance. And what a de-stressing break it would be to sit in a tree-lined park in the middle of a busy, bustling, noisy, smelly city? Want better cities? Make room for green spaces; get welfare associations to take care of them.