The EU Green Week: ISGlobal was invited to present about the health benefits of natural environments in the Barcelona
How can we inspire cities to be more sustainable and green? The EU Green Week aimed to provide an answer to that question. The week’s theme was ‘Green Cities for a Green Future’ and had multiple events in various European cities. In light of this special week, a 3-day conference took place in Brussels, bringing together city representatives, urban planners, researchers, and NGOs. ISGlobal was invited to present about the health benefits of natural environments in the Barcelona area during the session ‘Nature in the City’. The idea was to give a short TED talk-like presentation –so basically no PowerPoint slides, no complicated statistical models, and something suitable for a general public. A particular challenge was to do all this in five minutes.
I started my presentation with highlighting one of the most famous ‘greenness’ studies, that was published in 1984. This study (Ulrich, 1984) was about patients recovering from gall bladder surgery. Half of the patients had rooms with window views of trees, while the other half had window views of a concrete wall. The study showed that patients looking at the the trees had shorter recovery time, took less pain medication, and had fewer complications after surgery compared to the patients looking at the concrete wall. Could it be that the view of the trees improved the recovery of these patients?
Natural spaces offer a place for stress reduction which is very important in order to maintain our health
You are probably now thinking about your own window view. And if you live in Barcelona, your view is probably like mine - more that of a concrete jungle than a green one. Nature would be good for Barcelona citizens, because the city very densely built and very densely populated. There is busy traffic, the air quality is not so good and the city is quite noisy. Natural spaces, such as urban parks, green corridors, and community gardens could offer some relief to these urban stressors and could benefit our health. This is also something we see in research that we did in Barcelona within the PHENOTYPE project. For example, from interviews we know that natural spaces offer a place for stress reduction which is very important in order to maintain our health. When asking about natural spaces in Barcelona, interviewees said for example:
“I can be calm there, and I can have a rest”
“You can go there and disconnect”
“You feel that you are in a different environment”
“You’re more relaxed without traffic, it’s like a little island isolated from the city and that’s beautiful”
Collserola natural park (Barcelona). Author: Wilma Zijlema
Although there are not many natural environments in the city, just outside Barcelona there is the Collserola natural park. The benefit of having such a large peri-urban natural has been shown in an experiment done within the PHENOTYPE project. We tracked a group of stressed individuals that were spending time in downtown Barcelona, Collserola and at the beach. While they were there, we measured a number of aspects related to their stress levels, and we discovered that especially when these people were in the natural park they had lower stress levels than when they were in downtown Barcelona (Triguero-Mas et al., 2017). So being in this large natural space helped these people that were stressed to relax.
Children in environments with a high amount of greenness did better on those cognitive tests than children in environments that were less green
Finally, I highlighted results from the well-known BREATHE project about children and their cognitive development. Children were studied in their homes and schools for a period of twelve months. Data were collected on the greenness of the home and school environment and all children made cognitive tests. Children in environments with a high amount of greenness did better on those cognitive tests than children in environments that were less green (Dadvand et al., 2015). I think this is very important, because children need to be in a healthy environment in order to develop properly and if that happens, they will benefit from that for the rest of their lives.
Visual summary of the 'Nature in the City' session
Providing natural spaces in and just outside urban settings could lead to improved health and well being
Other presentations during the session were about a citizen science project for spotting bats in Utrecht (yes, in my backyard!); about urban gardens in Manchester (challenging, but with steps in the right direction); and about the cooling effects of vegetation in Trento (complex, but rewarding). A visual summary of the Nature in the City session, made by a visual artist, shows that “we need to aim high and wide…” if we want to improve access to nature. With a majority of the world now living in cities, we need cities to be healthy places. Providing natural spaces in and just outside urban settings could lead to improved health and well being.