The Great Outdoors:
just how important is urban green space for our mental health?

HORRID Covid! chats to Des Fitzgerald, Associate Professor of Sociology at the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health, University of Exeter and collaborator with the Urban Brain Lab at King’s College London about the role of city parks and green space for our psychological wellbeing.

Hello Des, how are you? Have you been surviving lockdown?

I’m well, thanks. “Lockdown” – we probably all need to open up that term a bit – is generally alright for someone like me, lucky enough to own a small home with a garden, lucky enough to be able to work from that home, lucky enough to not have caring responsibilities, lucky enough to be living without chronic disease or other vulnerabilities. There are contingencies that might change of course – the sector that employs me is looking quite shaky at the moment – but so far I have nothing to complain of compared to many others, including friends and family, who have gotten (and remain) very sick, lost people close to them, lost livelihoods, been unable to leave apartments, and so on.

You have worked with the Urban Brain Lab, which sounds a lot like something out of a sci-fi novel, but actually exists. What does the work entail and what are your research interests?

I don’t know that it does actually exist, at least in terms of how most people would understand that term. Urban Brain Lab is a self-description that a few of us started using when I was a postdoc at King’s College London, initially working with sociologist Nikolas Rose and neuroscience and society scholar Ilina Singh. Our collaborators went on to include geographers, urban studies scholars and anthropologists, now based all around the world. I don’t know that they would all subscribe to this descriptor though!

I guess what holds together that term, “urban brain lab,” nonetheless, is a concern with a fairly old question about mental health and urban life – to put it crudely: how come there are such consistently increased rates of mental health problems in cities? But it’s also an attempt to argue that you can only seriously address that problem by simultaneously passing through the city as a kind of ongoing sociological event, and through the human brain, as a biological space where those events are registered, experienced, brought into visibility, perhaps even ameliorated. So the “urban brain” is really a way of describing the process where cities and psyches – you’ll notice I am letting my terms slip – are always mutually shaping one another. And I think we deliberately used the word “lab” – which, if you are trained and employed in British sociology, is kind of a ridiculous term to use for yourself – to indicate the kinds of messily collaborative and material relationships we were interested in fostering to address those questions.

Since then, we’re all been working on different versions of these questions, separately and apart, most notably with colleagues in Shanghai. I’ve since moved to Exeter where I’m working at the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health and thinking now about the role of green space in the city and how this is understood as psychologically restorative for urban residents.

Lots of us have been heading to our local parks during lockdown to escape the house, take a moment with nature and feel like we’re doing something positive for our wellbeing. Is there research to back up this idea that green spaces are good for our mental health?

The short answer is yes, lots of it, including this excellent recent paper by some of my colleagues at Exeter, on the health and wellbeing effects of spending time in the garden. There’s also evidence of a dose response between nature-contact and some mental health conditions, evidence that simply growing up near green space gives you a lower risk of psychiatric problems in later life, and so on. With all that said, we need to be really careful here. The best researchers in psychology and public health will always remind you to think critically about the evidence, to avoid simple conclusions, to focus on the details of research design and so on. And this is especially the case when we’re dealing with vast, historically-loaded variables like “green space” or “the city.” So, for example, in the neurobiological literature on the effects of green space on cognition, and this is totally unavoidable, researchers are often taking brain measures while someone is, for example, looking at an image of green space within a brain-imaging machine – which is certainly a distinctive kind of experience but what it tells you about what it’s like to actually be in a park is unclear to me. The best researchers would also remind you to be wary of confounding factors (most obviously: people with good access to green space by and large tend to be better off) as well as cultural associations. So, for example, maybe we feel better in green spaces because we’ve been raised in the shadow of a romantic association that ties together nature, freedom, intense bodily sensations and so on. So there’s a lot of history and sociology we need to process here – and that shouldn’t be controversial.

The city has been functioning abnormally these last three months. Do you think coronavirus has made green space more important?

Plainly green space has become more important, for all sorts of mundane and obvious reasons. One thing that’s really struck me though – and I’ve written a short piece that touched on this in passing – is how urban green space has become visible as both a therapeutic device and a site of moral panic in the last few months, as people are, somehow, judged to be inhabiting green spaces in the wrong way. For example, there’s been a lot of kind of moralistic public comment about people having picnics or barbecues in the park, listening to music, hanging out with people who may or may not be in the same household, and so on. At least, these kinds of lurid stories – often accompanied by images of rubbish left strewn about – are the source of more or less daily hand-wringing in local media where I am. And I have to say, I am not convinced all of this condemnation is truly motivated by a pure concern for public health. Or maybe to put it better – it seems clear that making green space into a public health object is having all sorts of ripple effects for how we think about bodies in space. In any event, the last few months has been an amazing illustration of how there is a right way and a wrong about to “do” urban nature, and also that adjudications about how one “does” it (walking a dog is fine; drinking a can of beer on a bench not so much) are deeply entangled in the history of urban parks as spaces for training mostly working-class bodies to behave in certain kinds of ways in public. So here again, discourse on green space teaches us how epidemiology, urban history, and the politics of class and race are inseparable from one another.

Right now there are lots of people who don’t have access to green space, either because they don’t have a garden or feel too vulnerable to be in busy parks. Do you see this as problematic?

It is enormously problematic, and a reminder that, as the urban planning scholar Jennifer Wolch and her colleagues remind us, questions of urban green space are always questions of environmental justice too. So if green space, nature contact, and so on, does have the profound effect on wellbeing that is often claimed for it – including by municipal authorities – then we needed to start thinking seriously about people’s right to access outdoor space, and what it would mean for society to vindicate that right. The work of someone like Aimi Hamraie, and the work they’re doing at their Critical Design Lab at Vanderbilt, is critical to thinking through just these complexities of access, design and environmental justice. We should also, collectively, think carefully about who is vulnerable in an urban park: I’m writing only a week or so after an infamous incident in which a white woman was filmed calling the police in Central Park in New York, to say that an African-American man who had asked her to leash her dog was threatening her – in what might have been an enormously dangerous incident for that man. So who has access to nature, who is welcome, who is vulnerable – there is a great deal of work to be done here.

Do you think the pandemic will change how we plan and develop cities and parks in the future so that they are more psychologically-positive places to be?

Max Nathan, the urban policy scholar, has written a really useful piece about the changes we are currently seeing in urban planning and how these may map out into the future – for example, we’re currently seeing space being taken from cars and given over to pedestrians to allow social distancing. Will some of that stay? Maybe. Certainly, on a positive-ish note, I think the pandemic has made the importance of green space visible to a lot of people in cities who may have taken it for granted previously (I include myself in that number) and made clear the reliance of an awful lot of people on shared, municipally-owned and managed spaces, such as parks and beaches. But to be frank, I still worry that there is too much of a tendency to see urban green space as a psychological panacea for what are, in fact, deep-rooted structural problems of insecurity, poverty, state violence and so on. If we were serious about the psychologically-positive city, it seems to me, we would be much more interested in things like: security of housing tenure and housing quality, segregation and income inequality and gentrification. That’s not to dismiss the role of green space, but we should be careful that parks don’t get used as a kind of psychological Band-Aid to cover the entrenched problems of urban life.

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