Green is a happy colour
If you’ve been to New York City and have visited Central Park, you will know what the word “oasis” means. A place of rest, of restoration, of calm and happiness right in the middle of one of the noisiest, busiest, craziest cities in the world.
Well, Montreal is doing something even better, with the recent announcement of a huge swath of the West Island to be preserved as a natural park, something on the order of 3,000 hectares. Central Park, which is huge, is actually small by comparison, at 341 hectares.
The LeBreton Flats site in Ottawa that some of us dream might be turned into a natural park? It’s tiny, at 23 hectares.
As I recently explained in the Ottawa Citizen, I believe we should have trees everywhere. But even more than trees: we need biodiversity and landscapes that are left in their natural states, as much as possible. Not because earthworms and turtles matter more than we do, but rather because having this much nature around us makes us bipeds healthier and happier. Provided we have access to it, of course.
That’s why I’m pleased to hear that even though Montreal’s proposed park has no name or budget or timeline just yet, there are plans for three transit stops nearby to allow everyone easy access to it.
I’m thrilled. This means hundreds of suburban houses will not be built near wetlands, which are critical to the health of our ecosystems, or in areas that are prone to flooding. Instead Montreal will use this space to improve human happiness, and not just for those privileged enough to have private estates near wooded areas.
Wide access to green, natural spaces, you may be surprised to hear, is considered something of a public-health priority in recent research. See for instance this study:
“If the evidence shows that nature contact helps to buffer against negative impacts from other environmental predictors of health, then access to these landscapes can be considered a matter of environmental justice,” said study lead author Greg Brahman, a former Stanford postdoctoral scholar and current assistant professor at the University of Washington.
When it comes to promoting human health, not all green spaces are created equal. That’s the conclusion of new Australian research, which finds higher levels of wellness in areas marked by one particular manifestation of the natural world: leafy trees.
They describe a large-scale longitudinal study featuring 46,786 mostly older residents of three Australian urban areas. The subjects were initially interviewed between 2006 and 2009; follow-up reports were taken between 2012 and 2015.
At both points, participants were asked to rate their overall health, and noted whether they have ever been diagnosed with, or treated for, anxiety or depression. In addition, they completed a 10-item questionnaire designed to measure their risk of psychological distress. Among other items, they noted how often in recent weeks they had felt “hopeless, rigid, or fidgety,” “so sad that nothing could cheat you up,” or “worthless.”
After taking into consideration such variables as the participants’ age, gender, education, and household income, the researchers were able to confirm the results of previous studies, finding that “total green space appeared to be associated with lower odds of incident psychological distress.”
More intriguingly, they also found that exposure to low-lying vegetation was not consistently associated with any particular health outcome. Exposure to grass was, surprisingly, associated with higher odds of psychological distress. The wellness-boosting feature, then, appears to be the tress.
The researchers report that living in areas where 30 percent or more of the outdoor space is dominated by tree canopy was associated with 31 percent lower odds of psychological distress, compared to people living in areas with 0 to 9 percent tree canopy.
This other study also makes the connection between higher levels of biodiversity and human well-being. I was just in Boston and noticed how many more birds they have in that city, including in less-privileged areas in East Cambridge and whatever neighbourhood is at the back of that Harvard stadium, than one encounters in Ottawa, even in leafier neighbourhoods. I’m no scientist, but seeing so many birds (and not just one species of bird either) made me smile.
We can’t all have space for 3,000 hectares of green, wild natural preserves. But we can all have more green around us. It’s good for the trees, the worms and the birds, but mostly it’s good for us.