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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Stress is not a walk in the park

Kaid Benfield

Posted February 19, 2009

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my favorite city park, London's Russell Square (by: Daniel Lobo, creative commons license) 

So said Rachel in this space last summer, and I've been pushing the city parks thing here for over a year now.  Now we have some new research to back it up.

In particular, Meghna Marjadi reports in the McGill Tribune, a student paper associated with McGill University in Montreal, on a new study finding that a test group of students walking through an urban arboretum scored better on memory and mood indicia than a control group walking on city streets.  The research was conducted at the University of Michigan:

"The study investigated how human interactions with nature and cities affect memory performance by sending participants on 50-minute walks in each environment. Half of the study participants walked in downtown Ann Arbor, the other in the Ann Arbor arboretum. Prior to the walk, participants were assessed for mood, memory, and attention. They were also given GPS watches to ensure that they remained on route. When they returned, researchers gave participants the same memory tests. A week later, those who walked in the arboretum repeated the same procedure, but instead walked in the city, and those who previously walked in the city walked in the park.

"'We found that when the people walked in the park ... they showed significant improvements in their memory and attention,' says Marc Berman, a University of Michigan graduate student who worked on the study.

"According to Berman, 'The combination of nature's absence and constant attention to cars and other hazards causes stress.'

"'The idea is that when you're in nature you can let your mind wander'" says Berman. 'There are lots of interesting things to look at, and you can rest some portions of attention. While, in an urban environment, typically you can't rest attention so much . . . You need to be really vigilant that you don't get hit by a car or walk into people.'"

Assuming you can't go for a walk right now, read the full article here.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 


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Tony ChaviraFeb 19 2009 01:01 PM

I saw this on planetizen yesterday and immediately thought "no wonder I'm losing my mind." Unsurprisingly, I forgot it right away.

Scientific American actually had an article that supports this research, adding that wandering thoughts trigger your brain's reward system:

Anyway, great post! Needless to say, Ebenezer Howard would be proud. Too bad we don't blog in Esperanto.

Steven P.Feb 22 2009 02:09 PM

The article discussing this in the Tribune said that even a few trees or some grass is beneficial to people in urban environments. Is it just me, or does that imply that suburban areas, where people typically have their own green spaces, would be better for memory than living in less-green urban environments?

Certainly, people going for a walk is such an environment would have to be more vigilant than those taking a walk in a park, but if a view with a few trees makes a difference, then they wouldn't have to go on a walk to have better memory capacities than people in urban environments.

If I'm right to infer that, then it would be interesting to see a study comparing the memory capacities of people who live in urban areas but take walks in the park against people who just live in the suburbs. It wouldn't make up for suburbia's other problems, no matter how it turned out, but it would be interesting to see.

Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

Kaid @ NRDCFeb 23 2009 09:59 AM

Interesting point, Steven. I think there is, in fact, some research showing that hospital and/or nursing home patients do better when they can view nature from their rooms.

I wouldn't necessarily conclude that suburbs provide that experience better than cities do, though. In fact, many city neighborhoods actually have more visible greenery than most new suburbs, because the city neighborhoods have mature trees and vegetation. In new suburbs, builders tend to strip the area barren before creating the built development, and it takes decades for the trees and other vegetation to mature.

Another issue is that, in newer developments, such nature as exists tends to be privatized (back yards being a great example), so that walking through nature isn't much of an option unless one is actually in a park.

City business districts don't have much nature but, then, neither does, say, Tysons Corner.

What I take away from research like this is that we would benefit by being more thoughtful about incorporating nature into walkable, sustainable neighborhoods, whether they are in the suburbs or in cities.

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