In The Neighborhood

How the built environment influences our mental health

Variety: The Spice of Park Life

High quality parks may benefit mental health

I had a “moment” at the park today. A good moment. The sun was shining, the grass was green, the mothers we had come to meet were chatting around me, and our children giggled as they weaved in and out of the play equipment. The tensions of the morning melted away. The breakfast tantrums, unwashed dishes, and looming deadlines were forgotten. All was right with the world.

It occurred to me that this scenario was the perfect embodiment of my research into the built environment and mental health. In particular, my doctoral thesis focused on public space, with one of my major findings suggesting that neighborhoods featuring high quality parks were almost twice as likely to contain residents reporting low levels of psychological distress (i.e., better mental health) as low quality parks. Park quality was measured using a range of attributes, including walking paths, shade, water features, irrigated lawn, birdlife, lighting, sporting facilities and playgrounds.

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This is by no means an exhaustive list of park attributes that may influence mental health. While the members of my mothers’ group do not choose venues in a conscious attempt to improve their wellbeing, we intuitively seek out parks that possess many of these features. I do believe, however, that a nearby coffee shop would rate particularly highly on many a mothers’ list of mentally healthy park attributes.

What people want in a public space varies depending on their individual characteristics and life stage. I found that water features within parks often have a calming effect on older individuals, but can be considered a nightmare for mothers with young and inquisitive toddlers. Indeed, the ideal public space caters for a variety of uses and users. Qualitative researchers such as Vicky Cattell and colleagues have suggested that parks should contain areas for both quiet contemplation and social interaction. 

The pathways between public space quality and mental health are not entirely understood. My research was based on the premise that people would be more inclined to visit high quality parks, thereby creating opportunities to meet and interact in ways that might improve mental health. However, my results did not fully support this hypothesis. I found only a direct relationship between park quality and mental health, suggesting people did not need to use parks frequently in order to gain benefit. Interviews I conducted also suggest that residents can improve their mood simply by viewing a park from their home or car window. These findings may reflect the restorative benefits of nature that have been widely reported in the published literature – and, indeed, by other bloggers on the Psychology Today website. Studies that collect data over a number of years are required for us to draw more substantive conclusions about how park quality influences mental health. 

As an academic, it is always encouraging to feel as though your research findings ring true in practice. Certainly my experience at the park this morning had me feeling that this was the case. 

I hope you continue to join me as I explore ways in which my life reflects my research into the built environment and mental health. Ultimately my goal is to uncover the many ways in which we can create environments that feel good to be in – environments that enhance our health and happiness as both individuals and members of a larger community.

In the spirit of community, please feel free to propose topics that you would like me to explore on this blog. In upcoming weeks, I look forward to sharing my thoughts and findings with you on the role of public art in creating vibrant communities and the importance of neighborhoods and the resources within them.

 

References:

Francis, J., Wood, L.J., Knuiman, M. and Giles-Corti, B. 2012. Quality or quantity? Exploring the relationship between Public Open Space attributes and mental health in Perth, Western Australia, Social Science & Medicine, 74, 1570-1577.

Cattell, V., Dines, N., Gesler, W. and Curtis, S. 2008. Mingling, observing, and lingering: everyday public spaces and their implications for well-being and social relations, Health & Place, 14, 544-561.

Jacinta Francis, Ph.D., is a Research Associate with the Centre for the Built Environment and Health at The University of Western Australia.

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