Urban green spaces such as parks, forests, green roofs, and community gardens contribute significantly to sustainable economic growth but are often in short supply. Green spaces are also important for the community’s welfare and encourage physical activity, mental well-being, and general health of local citizens. According to the biophilia hypothesis (BET) introduced by Edward O. Wilson in his book Biophilia, it represents the intrinsic tendency of human beings to establish relations with nature and other forms of life. Similarly, “Our Better Nature: How The Great Outdoors Can Improve Your Life” podcast by Shankar Vedantam, host of Hidden Brain and guest speaker Ming Kuo, head of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, explores how the shift from forest life to freeways and overflowing cities affects our lives and our well-being. Kuo’s main research focus is on the connection between healthy urban ecosystems to stronger and safer neighbourhoods and various mental and physical health indicators. The aim of the following essay is to discuss the finding of Kuo’s research on how lack of green space results in social breakdowns, aggressive behaviours, increased crime rate, and mental fatigue while considering variables such as noise, crowding, and income as well as expanding on climate, an absent variable not considered in the research and discussion of this podcast.
Urban growth is placing increasing pressure on urban planners, politicians, and society to evolve in a sustainable and resilient way. The impacts of urban climate change include, but are not limited to wind speed and direction, humidity, air temperature, rising sea levels, and changes in precipitation compared to many rural areas. Such variations are largely due to modifying the natural landscape by building new and artificial surfaces as well as introducing innovative heat and water vapor sources. To reduce damage to human behaviour and health, the environment and the economy, cities must be able to mitigate the impacts of extreme climate. An increase in levels of human conflict is one of the major shifts that may occur in human behaviour as the weather continues to heat. According to a landmark study in 2013, the researchers wrote “median projections suggest that the rate of interpersonal violence increases by 4 percent and the frequency of intergroup conflict increases by 14 percent” for each one standard deviation climate change toward warmer temperatures or more severe rainfall.
A 2015 study found many ways of directly linking climate change to higher incidences of mental health issues. Human reactions due to disasters are highly traumatic but beyond the immediate trauma of a flood or drought. The impacts can be more subtle, for example, economic shifts can leave people suddenly poor, making them more vulnerable to problems of mental health. A hypothesis suggested in 2015 by a group of scientists, describes the impact of climate change on our daily weather which shifts our planning behaviour. Also, inadequate planning is associated with social change, crime, and other issues. According to scientists, peoples planning behaviour increases as it gets colder in cold climate cities and vice versa for warm climate cities. Understanding the risk to human health and actions from climate change is the first step in reducing the risk.
The main focus of the podcast was to see the impact of nature on people. Kuo started her research by looking at animals’ well-being in zoos. Although animals in the zoos have basic needs such as food, safety, and shelter, they often struggle to thrive compare to their natural habitat. Likewise, biologists have studied wildlife and developed a theory of habitat selection that states that we are wired to habitat we evolve in and flourish physically, psychologically, and socially in that environment. This theory also applies to humans, where humans experience social, psychological, and physical breakdown when housed in unfit habitats. Kuo shared evidence of her research conducted in Chicago. Her first study was conducted at the Robert Taylor Homes where people were randomly assigned to various identical buildings. One key difference was that some of the buildings around them had a bit of trees and grass and some of them didn’t. During the research, people were asked questions such as did they know their neighbours, did they speak to their neighbours, could they rely on their neighbours for a favor such as taking care of their children during an emergency, and people with greenery were much more likely to say yes. The consequence of these different buildings was people were having social breakdowns, reporting more aggressive behaviours, and were more mentally fatigued in buildings without trees and grass.
Attention Restoration Theory (ART) developed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan exactly suggests that mental fatigue and concentration can be improved by time spent in or looking at nature. Furthermore, when a person is mentally fatigued, they will be less good at handling difficult social situations productively and more irritable. Kuo also did a follow-up study of two years’ worth of low-rise development crime statistics involving the Chicago Police Department. These records provided an objective measure that there is less conflict in buildings with more greenery. There have also been researchers who worked with the city to coordinate their vacant lot program. The results show that adding more trees and grass not only has measurable effects on the quality of life, but it also decreases the crime rate. Vedantam and Kuo also talk about the effects that nature has on human physical and mental health, and the immune system. For all of Kuo’s study, the variables were constant, for instance, life circumstances, income, noise, crowding except for the greenery. This podcast concludes the relationship between human and nature .
Cities around the world are transitioned into congestion due to new businesses and condos being developed, resulting in the lack of shared facilities such as parks and community gardens. Such economic growth also comes at the community and culture’s expense and often leads to a decline in quality of life. Industrial activity has been focused for the last 200 years on a linear system whose style is fundamentally degenerative. The core of this linear system is the supply chain of taking, making, using, and losing. It results in natural resource over-consumption, climate change impacts, and green space reduction. Kate Raworth proposed in Seven Ways to Think Like a Twenty-First-Century Economist to regenerate that release regenerative development to create a circular economy rather than a linear one.
Psychology of the environment is the study of the interaction between human behaviour and the physical environment. It looks at individual’s ability to perceive and interpret their surroundings, the preference of individuals for different environments, and an individual’s ability to cope with environmental stress, all of which can influence Kuo’s analysis. To receive data that will help your research, experiments in Economic Development are necessary. Kuo talks about the type of experiment she used for her research in the podcast. Kuo’s building experiment uses a Randomized Control Trial (RCT) test to minimize bias; this is achieved by allocating people randomly to two control groups, treating them differently in terms of greenery around the buildings, and comparing them to see the outcomes.
The effect of climate is an important aspect when considering green space in urban areas. Secondly, the amount of green space available influences the climate. According to Makhelouf, open spaces make a valuable contribution to helping reduce levels of ambient greenhouse gas, the cause of climate change. Urban green space is a cost-effective way of mitigating harsh local climate as trees have a natural cooling effect that can theoretically lower surface temperature. As a factor, the weather will fill the gap in the podcast as it influences human behaviour and health. While Kuo’s work has the consent of other variables, the question remains: would the findings be the same if the climate in the building experiment were considered as a non-constant variable? Green space provides a way to respond to climate change that can be expanded to help reduce air temperatures and carbon emissions across a variety of urban areas.
There is an adequate amount of research available on the connection between climate change and human health and behaviour. However, when the weather is used as a factor in Kuo’s study, since it is not a constant variable, research is limited. Additional research would have to be carried out on how the finding of Kuo’s study would vary if the two control groups, one with greenery and one without had changing weather conditions which impacts human behaviour.
Ultimately, more green space and better weather conditions in seasons like spring and summer tends to have a positive effect on people’s mood, whereas extreme hot or cold temperatures and fewer greenery results in an unpleasant mood. In conclusion, the demand for green space is greater than supply, resulting in consumer shortage. For decades to come, green infrastructure is needed to cool our cities and help solve social isolation, violence, and fatigue.