The magic of the mundane: The vulnerable web of connections between urban nature and wellbeing

“It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”

These are the words of Sir David Attenborough, an English broadcaster and natural historian, that “roamed the globe and shared his discoveries and enthusiasms”. And he couldn’t possibly be more right.

Nowadays, there is much research that shows us how the natural environment supports human well-being (World Health Organisation, 2016; Pritchard, Richardson, Sheffield, & McEwan, 2019). Much of the literature relies on a biomedical perspective and shows us that green spaces do have positive effects on our health, such as:

  1. Decreased salivary cortisol (which is an indicator of stress)
  2. Lower cholesterol and heart rates
  3. Reduced cardiovascular mortality
  4. Reduced risk of Type II diabetes
  5. Better self-reported general health

However, a recent international review of 263 studies noted that 70% of the articles examined, reported that access to nature is associated with psychological well-being and stress relief. Spending time in nature or simply noticing the nature around us (even if it is just admiring some roses on our way back home) can have beneficial effects such as:

  1. Reduced anxiety and mood disorder
  2. Improved levels of vitality
  3. Short term spikes in well-being
  4. The potential to increase resilience against stressful life events

It is also important to be aware of the fact that all positive effects mentioned above can also depend on the type of green spaces/ natural environment, culture, and personal preferences.

From a practical point of view, a study in Switzerland found that so-called green interventions are actually a great help for newcomers and migrants to feel a sense of belonging. It is all based on the premise that mental well-being is linked with social activity. That activity can very well be volunteering in green spaces. Therefore, these interventions are offered as social prescriptions in order to efficiently tackle mental ill-health and reduce demands on healthcare providers. Taking this into consideration, a dose of nature could actually be a cost-effective supplement for modern medical interventions. One study from England suggests that 120 minutes of recreational nature contact is an appropriate nature dose

Another researched finding and perhaps the most valuable conclusion we can embrace in our life, states that everyday experiences matter in terms of human well-being. A randomized controlled trial using a smartphone app found that noticing good things in urban nature over seven days resulted in increases in mental well-being and connectedness with nature. These good things were actually everyday experiences, such as the view of a tree, the sight of a little flower growing out of concrete, or the sound of the birds chirping in the morning. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a trip around the world to notice nature and to feel connected with it. These “relatively mundane experiences have also symbolic significance as they offer opportunities to reflect on life problems and to gain a sense of what is real and manageable” (Evered, 2016). 

Dobson, J., Birch, J., Brindley, P., Henneberry, J., McEwan, K., Mears, M., ... & Jorgensen, A. (2021). The magic of the mundane: The vulnerable web of connections between urban nature and wellbeing. Cities108, 102989.