How does urban greenery influence our physical, social and psychological well-being?

– The effects of city squares with or without trees on well-being of users


(From previous issue No.38)

Statements such as „being in nature” and „being in the landscape” release positive emotions in our brain. This effect and the reactions initiated by the experience of being in nature have been scientifically proven in the psychological, physical and social fields. Given that modern life is predominantly urban, the creation of urban open spaces is of particular importance, allowing the positive effects described above to impact on the lives and activities of city dwellers. Having access to a variety of urban open spaces supports our wellbeing in many ways. The empirical study explained in this article explores issues around the perception of and the effects of different public open spaces.

Landscape scenes versus city squares

Open spaces in cities are complex places which not only allow leisure activities but are also places of residence, work and social encounters and are therefore partly responsible for increasing the quality of urban life. Schwartze and Rudisuli describe urban public open spaces firstly, as leisure and living space, secondly, as having a social function, and thirdly, as having a psychological- hygienic function. The latter became a trendsetting research chapter, which was identified as a future oriented theme during the 6th European Public Health Conference.

The Swiss research project‚ Paysage a votre sante (The landscape and your health) – a project supporting health and landscape - describes four aspects on which one’s surroundings has an effect. These are the physical, psychological and social health and, in particular, effects on the health of children and young people. Physical health stems from movement and from an environment in which accessibility and attractive design promote physical activity. Psychological health refers to the increased ability to concentrate, to an increase in positive feelings, to the reduction of frustration, annoyance and stress and to a reduction in criminal activity. Nature achieves this with the presence of trees, meadows and fields. Social health is promoted by the opportunities that green open spaces offer for social contacts and encounters. Moreover, the collective experience of nature strengthens the community. The countryside serves to improve the cognitive, motor, social and emotional skills of children and young people and to exert a positive influence on their health in the long term.

Public parks in urban environment are consciously associated with the positive effects of the landscape and nature. The recreational function is described as its major task.
„The primary role of public parks is the satisfaction of everyday, regular recreational needs. … Inhabitants still need parks to provide the experience of nature, they enjoy the peace and calmness provided by the valuable, mature tree stands and the historical space structure.“
Accordingly, the positive effects of public parks have been examined more often than the effects of other types of open space. This leads to new research questions, for example, regarding the possible effects of greenery on city squares. The view that inner-city urban green areas can compensate for the effects of mental and physical demands and can contribute optimally to regeneration is embedding itself into current city planning discussion and is increasingly being defined as an objective. The resolution, ‘Values for the City of Tomorrow’ describes the situation thus: „The aim of responsible city planning must be to equip townscapes with a distinctive identity, to improve fundamentally the urban green spaces in the centers and to increase the opportunities for leisure activities in the residential environment“.

The basic condition for having preferences is the ability to categorize the perceived environment. In a study by Kaplan and Kaplan which explored perceptions of the environment, criteria for the development of categories, such as function, age, type of the built surroundings and vegetation, were proposed. The results of this study show that neither the size, nor the order or maintenance of an open space is authoritative for categorization. Two factors were, however, important, which determine categorization and with it, preference: the balance (relationship) between the built and the natural elements and the arrangement of the natural surroundings themselves.
„How is the type of environment perceived? It would seem reasonable that the underlying commonalities would be on the basis of function – what activities one might carry out. The result of this study showed that the size of open space was not a factor in itself; nor was the tidiness or maintenance of the area. Rather, the results suggested that the basis for grouping was related to two factors: the balance between the buildings and the natural areas and the arrangement of the natural area itself.“

Research methodology

The empirical study explained in this article focuses on the open space type, ‘city square’. The study involved 700 test subjects. The aim was to understand, following Siebel, whether the landscape scenes and the city scenes, as a contrasting pair, generate different reactions in the subjects’ perceptions. The survey, carried out on the basis of pictures of real situations, such as city squares with greenery (209 test subjects), city squares without greenery (207 test subjects) and nonurban countryside scenes (196 test subjects), measures the effect on our well-being and the subjectively-valued attractiveness of the situations.

Three different slideshows were prepared, each with 20 images of diverse European environments with three typical environmental sets: landscapes, city squares without any greenery and city squares with greenery. Before the experiment, participants completed a questionnaire about their psychological well-being and added some demographic data about themselves. Then the participants were randomly divided into three groups. Each participant saw one of the slideshows depending on which group they had been assigned to.

After the slide shows, the participants judged the images they had seen in terms of attractiveness. They then filled out the questionnaire that would measure their well-being (bad-good mood scale) (Multidimensional Mood State Questionnaire of Steyer).

/read the rest of this post in issue No.38/

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