How to Make Cities Happier and More Sustainable

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Here’s a hint: Go back to nature.

By Nathan Collins

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A man takes advantage of hot weather in New York City’s Central Park. (Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

As the world grows increasingly urban—54 percent of humanity now lives in cities, and two-thirds will by 2050—we may grow increasingly disconnected from the natural world around us. That’s bad news for our mental health and the environment, too, according to a new perspective.Fortunately, there could be a solution: Give some of our urban space back to nature.

The perspective is part of a special issue of Science on the challenges of an increasingly urbanized world, including the need for expanded mass transit, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and the difficulties of maintaining secure food supplies for ever-expanding cities.

“Numerous studies have suggested that urban living conditions undermine mental health, whereas conditions in rural areas support health,” write Terry Hartig, a professor of environmental psychology at Uppsala University, and Peter Kahn, director of the Human Interaction With Nature and Technological Systems lab at the University of Washington. Mood disorders, for example, are 28 percent more common in urban areas compared with rural ones.

“Urban living conditions undermine mental health, whereas conditions in rural areas support health.”

The benefits are not, however, limited to completely rural, undeveloped lands. Indeed, spending time in natural areas within a city appears to ease symptoms of depression, and moving to greener, but still urban, areas from less green ones is associated with mental-health improvements — all of which suggests that giving up some of the concrete in favor of parks and trees might be good amid the swelling number of city dwellers. Results like that, according to Hartig and Kahn, suggest that re-designing cities with more pockets of natural space could have positive effects on mental health—although more research is needed to understand exactly what it is about natural places, rural or urban, that’s of such importance.

Beyond the psychological benefits of greener cities, Harting and Kahn write, there could be direct and indirect ecological benefits as well. “People in increasingly large and dense urban areas may have few or no contacts with the natural world in everyday life … [which] helps to explain inaction on environmental problems,” the researchers write—basically, they don’t commune with nature, and likely just don’t think about it very much. “Providing opportunities for people to experience more robust, healthy, and even wilder forms of nature in cities offers an important solution to this collective loss of memory and can counter the shifting baseline.”

Well-designed cities could support both the ecosystem and public health—and even be viewed as natural, in a way—if they expand parks; restore rivers to some measure of their original, free-flowing states; and create walking and cycling paths through which to experience all a city has to offer.

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