When Rebecca Lemos-Otero grows up in Columbia Height near Washington DC, she says that her first experience with nature was in her late teens when her mother founded a community garden
"I was really surprised and I fell in love quickly. "she recalls. The garden was peaceful and a "respite" from the neighborhood, which had high crime rates, left lots and buildings, she says.
Inspired by this experience, Lemos-Otero, 39, founded City Blossoms, a local non-profit organization that created about 1
Children love the gardens, she says. It gives them a chance to forget their worries.
"Having access to a bit of nature, reading a tree, or having a safe place like one of our gardens definitely makes a big difference in their stress levels," says Lemos-Otero. "The feedback we got from many young people is that they feel a little bit lighter."
Now a group of researchers from Philadelphia have published research supporting their experience. The study, published Friday in JAMA Network Open, found that access to even small green spaces can reduce the symptoms of depression for people living near them, especially in low-income areas.
Previous research has shown that green spaces are associated with better mental health, but this study is "innovative," says Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor at the Department of Environmental Sciences, Politics and Management at the University of California, Berkeley, of was not involved in the research.
"To my knowledge, this is the first intervention to be tested, as in a drug trial, by randomly assigning treatment to see what you see," Morello-Frosch adds. Most previous studies to study this were mostly observational.
Philadelphia was a good laboratory for researching the impact of green areas on mental health, as there are many abandoned buildings and vacant lots, often crammed with garbage, says Eugenia South, an assistant professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and an author of the study.
"There are probably over 40,000 of them in the city, but they are concentrated in certain parts of the city," she says. "And these areas tend to be poorer neighborhoods."
Pearl Mak / NPR
South and her colleagues wanted to see if the simple task of cleaning and grounding these empty plots could affect the mental health and well-being of the residents. So they randomly chose 541 vacant lots and divided them into three groups.
They collaborated with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society for cleanup.
The games in one group remained untouched – this was the control group. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society cleared the plots of land in a second group and removed the garbage. And for a third group, they cleaned up the garbage and existing vegetation and planted new grass and trees. The researchers called this third sentence the "vacant lot greening" intervention.
The team interviewed residents who lived near the property before and after the trial to assess their mental health and well-being. "We used a psychological stress scale that asked people how often they felt nervous, hopeless, depressed, restless and worthless, and that it was all an effort," explains South.
The scale alone does not diagnose people with mental illness, but a score of 13 or more indicates a higher prevalence of mental illness in the community, she says.
People who lived near the newly greened plots felt better. "We found a significant reduction in the number of people feeling depressed," says South.
The effect was strongest for residents of poorer neighborhoods – showing at least a 27.5 percent reduction in the prevalence of depression.
"There is a great deal of research in this area," says Mike Rogerson, a professor at the University of Essex in the UK, who was not involved in the new study.
Rogerson, who looks at the impact of green spaces and outdoor activities on physical and mental health, states that green spaces are "equivalent" or that they offset socioeconomic differences in health.
People with a lower socioeconomic background are prone to poorer mental and physical health outcomes. But when exposed to green areas, "people who start worse off have more improvements," says Rogerson. "It's a leveler in society."
There could be several mechanisms here, he says, including a biological effect of exposure to nature. "Our bodies are physically responsive to the environment and nature because of the historical past of our species," says Rogerson.
South's own earlier work shows this, at least for a measure of acute stress – the heart rate. Using a similar experiment as this new study, she monitored the heart rate of residents passing the open plots before and after the greening experiment.
Pearl Mak / NPR
"In the green areas, I found out that people had lowered their heart rate when they passed these rooms," she says.
She and her colleagues have also shown that the greening experiment reduces crime, making residents feel safer and more secure in their own neighborhoods, which could in part explain the improvement in mental health.
And Rogerson's earlier research has shown that people exercising outdoors tend to interact for longer. And social cohesion is known to improve mental health and well-being.
The new study found that the Philadelphia greening intervention costs only $ 1,600 and $ 180 a year for maintenance.
"Greenfield acreage is a very simple and cost-effective way to improve neighborhoods that can improve mental health," says South.
Morello frog agrees. "It's a piece of low hanging fruit" when it comes to improving mental health in poor communities, she says.