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  • Writer's pictureLatifat Apatira, MD MPH

Revamping vacant urban lots into greenspaces can improve mental health

Dr. Nooshin Razani, the Director for the Center of Nature and Health, recently shared with me an exciting new research study.

The scientific study was published last month in the research journal JAMA and sought to determine if “greening” vacant urban spaces had the potential to improve the mental health of adults that lived in surrounding communities. To answer this question, the researchers interviewed over 400 adults (participants) living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, close to 110 vacant urban lots. The people were divided into three groups based on the treatment of the urban lots. One group of lots were “greened,” meaning trash was removed and grasses and trees were planted and maintained. The second group of lots were simply cleaned of trash, but the grass wasn’t mowed. In the third group of lots, nothing was done.

So, what’s the results of the study? Among the participants, in those who lived near the greened lots, feelings of depression decreased by nearly 42% and self-reports of poor mental health reduced nearly 62% compared to those living near the vacant lots in which no greening or landscaping was performed.

This is an important finding given that in the United States, almost 1 in 5 adults report some form of mental illness. It has been well-established through other similar scientific studies that spending time, interacting or living near green spaces and maintained parks are associated with beneficial mental health outcomes such as less stress, anxiety and depression. That’s one of the reasons why organizations like The Center for Nature and Health exists and works within a medical organization. We know that exposure to natural environments is good for mental health.

Inversely, for individuals living in neighbors with pool physical conditions—trashed, vacant spaces, or lacking infrastructure like parks and sidewalks area – are at increased risk of developing depression and other undesirable mental health outcomes. It’s highly unfortunate that such spaces are the most unavoidable in low-income/ low-resource communities, resulting in further stressor for the people who live there.

Take a look.

Vacant urban lot, San Bruno, California

Mediated urban lot, San Bruno, California

Which of these two lots would you rather live by?

Both photos are taken in San Bruno, California. I would pick bottom photo and I’m guessing you would too. That intuition that you feel that makes you pick the nice, clean, maintained lot is associated with real and important health outcomes. Your mind knows which area would be the healthiest for you.

Now, I’m not saying that direct medical therapies aren’t necessary and that all we need to do is pick up trash to eliminate depression. No, individuals with depression or anxiety should definitely seek a physician’s care. But on a larger community level, science has found our intuitions to be true. So, along with seeing a doctor, mediating vacant urban lots and other blighted environments in our neighborhoods can be an important public health tool to improving society’s mental health, especially for those living in low-income/low-resource communities.

Journal Reference: South et al. “Effect of Greening Vacant Land on Mental Health Community-Dwelling Adults.” JAMA Network Open. 2018;1(3):e180298. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0298

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