In today’s paradigm of bustling, fast cities, concrete metropolis, it’s hard to remember that we have trees and plants – especially in a city like London. We often feel totally disconnected from the reality of our earthly world as the pavement in front of us raises upwards towards our offices, homes and buildings, creating a conveyor belt towards consumerism and demand. The stereotypes we have so quickly adapted of lifestyles and environments are typically of a country space, luscious in its green expanse and tranquillity. For those of us lucky to live in these areas, the juxtaposition of that environment with the grey, homogenised and cold steel of the city already brings a sense of dread and stress.
In fact, it is in these cities that physiological and psychological stress has time and time been attributed to the lack of touch with the natural world and environmental factors. Many parks in London are flooded with individuals looking to ‘branch out’ from the cityscape, and these areas provoke feelings of relaxation, down time and happiness. It’s no secret that green spaces are positively associated with reduced stress, reduced physiological and hormonal stress levels and an increase in general wellbeing. But what are the mechanisms driving this change?
Even anecdotally, working in an office setting brings no real comforts to the worker who is stressed, tired and feeling under pressure. The sense of restriction (which to a degree is necessary) is overwhelming in office settings, where one is delivered to a task and expected to perform, machine like, to the task at hand. With the growing pressures of primary and secondary causes of stress, the inequality between the pure volume of work expected and the capabilities of the workers is constantly increasing, meaning many workers spend their lunch break catching up on side tasks. Many studies have delved deeper into the effect a ‘breath of fresh air’ can have on mental well being, resiliency and cognitive functioning – and this may be as simple as getting a walk at lunch, practicing mindfulness and disconnecting from technology. Crucially, these green spaces - which are often a small walk away from office buildings – give a great opportunity to passively destress from the environments we find all too consuming.
Green space literature offers three potential mechanisms by which exposing oneself to nature can improve physical and mental wellbeing. Firstly, green spaces promote physical activity and exercise, which are both associated with physiological and psychological stress release, as well as other beneficial neuro-chemical and psychological processes which contribute to relaxation. Secondly, green spaces and parks are perfect for meeting friends for lunch, a brisk walk or chat on a bench – and it may be this interaction with other people which brings a sense of community and wellbeing. Thirdly, but not least, is the near-meditative effect these tranquil environments have physiologically on our autonomic nervous system, promoting recovery and relaxation away from high-stimulus environments. Although these arguments are compelling, the sampling for studies around physiological change are hard to issue, and even harder to collect, yet anecdotal evidence from well known proverbs like ‘a breath of fresh air’ demonstrate the socially-engrained positive association with the outside world.
Interestingly, a study commissioned by the James Hutton institute (https://www.hutton.ac.uk/sites/default/files/files/projects/GreenHealth-InformationNote3-Urban-green-space-and-stress.pdf) aimed to identify and analyse levels of self-reported stress in individuals near green spaces or away from such spaces. The areas of green space in Dundee proximal to individuals work and homes was strongly correlated with the level of stress they experienced, and even influenced physiological markers of stress (such as cortisol). An interesting aspect of this study was the stratification of stress analysis by gender, showing that women who interacted with green spaces and parks experienced a greater level of stress reduction than their male counterparts. However, it is preliminary studies like this which set the roots for true reform and policy change in governmental action and give exciting insights into the future of green space awareness in society.
A powerful message from the Hutton study is the benefit of green space to individuals from deprived areas and community, who may expel and process negative emotion in healthier ways such as sport of general physical activity in the green spaces. For individuals and employers, initiatives such as flexible working and remote meetings in nature may provide a much better, balanced and low pressure environment to negotiate difficult topics and meetings, something which is exacerbated by the clinical environments of a meeting room.
These factors, aside from direct intervention, may seem unrelated, but smaller changes can lead to a change in office atmosphere, company ethos and interpersonal relations. This not only serves to increase productivity, but days out and meetings in green spaces give a sense of looseness and laid back attitudes to working which is invaluable in careers where stress is high. The indirect effects of encouraging individuals to embrace nature and green space can be two fold – in improving worker health and wellbeing, but further improving factors outside of the work place to influence productivity and career development. With initiatives such as ‘green towns’ we are beginning to see a shift in the attitudes towards the invaluable nature of green spaces. Coupled with societal change in environment protection, an encouragement of schemes promoting green interaction only serve to benefit companies and employers involved.