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"Compared to rural areas, those living in urban spaces are at a 40% higher risk of depression." Photo courtesy: Pexels

Mental Health

How the Lack of Greenery in Your Neighbourhood Is Impacting Your Mental Health

‘I didn’t realize the impact just a space to walk amongst trees had on my body and my emotions.’

I don’t know when I realized this, but the best part of my day is the bicycle ride to the nearby tea shop. I’ve been in Goa for four months now, and it’s not the partying or the beaches or the secret water bodies that are exciting, rather it’s just going past trees with a little wind in my sails.

Apart from looking great, trees also aid our mental health as I found out while digging deeper into the new found state of my mental health. A recent study from Germany found that people, especially from low income housing have a lower chance of being prescribed antidepressants if they live in areas of high density of trees. Another study from Japan found that people who walked among green spaces for even 15 minutes in cities or forests experienced less anxiety, hostility, fatigue, confusion, and depressive symptoms, and more vigour, when compared to walking among skyscrapers. Those who already felt anxious were impacted by the lack of trees even more.

I was reminded of a conversation with Daisy Mahadevan, a graphic designer based in Bangalore. She grew up in Sarjapur, an area lush with green spaces, but things changed for the worse when they were taken away.

“My earliest memories are of my dad taking pictures of me holding a flower,” she told Re:Set. “They always had plants in their house, and a garden outside so I spent lots of time there. Whenever I was upset, I’d go to the garden and play.”

“It’s a concrete jungle where that one tree gives me hope,” she added.

Things changed for Daisy when she moved out to “be independent and kick start a career.” Like others, she could only afford a much smaller home than the one she had grown up in.

Two images of an Indian man wearing a turquoise tshirt and beige shorts riding a bycyle on a road with trees on the side.

There is plenty of evidence that suggests that green spaces are great for our mental health. Photo courtesy: Tanisha Sinha

“I was excited but didn’t know what I was letting go off,” she said. “I didn’t realize the impact just a space to walk amongst trees had on my body and my emotions. And I felt anxious, with that taken away from me, in between figuring out how to feed myself and not fall sick.”

Having been away for four years, she goes back home on weekends, and despite usual tiffs with parents, Daisy feels calmer, happier. In her current home in the middle of the big city, things are different.

“I’m struggling to motivate myself, especially all the work for home due to COVID-19,” she explained. “I’ve shifted my table near a window so I can stare at the one tree in front of my house. I’ve placed plants around, but it’s not the real thing. It’s frustrating and affects my mood and my mental health.”

“It’s a concrete jungle where that one tree gives me hope,” she added.

The scientific basis for Daisy’s feelings, especially as a child, are startling. In Finland, researchers installed forest floor material from a healthy forest in the play area of a daycare centre. They found that interacting with the material made the children more resilient to stress.

There is plenty of evidence that suggests that green spaces are great for our mental health. This is even more important in cities, as they are losing their green cover, and fast. In the U.S., for example, a 2018 study found that urban areas in the U.S. are losing 36 million trees a year.

This is important because compared to rural areas, those living in urban spaces are at a 40% higher risk of depression and over 20% more susceptible to anxiety, along with the casual loneliness, isolation and stress. This occurs because living in urban spaces alters how we cope with stress. The constant stimulation of city life, according to psychiatrists, can propel the body into a stressful state which makes us more vulnerable to mental health concerns, such as depression, anxiety, and substance use.

According to the American Psychological Association, the rising stress amongst Americans could be a national mental health crisis. No wonder that coupled with the additional stress of COVID-19, millions of Americans have moved out of big cities.

Raj Cherubal is the CEO at Chennai Smart City , an urban renewal and retrofitting programme by India’s Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, and knows just how difficult it can be to increase green spaces in large metropolitan cities.

The shade of trees then can have a non-linear effect of increase in public transport.

“The direct importance of trees, from the environment to mental health is undeniable, but implementing in cities, especially in already built urban metropolitans is the difficult thing,” he told Re:Set. “In Chennai for example, we have lots of rivers which have sewage, and the city is trying to fix that.” Over a 2-kilometer stretch next to Buckingham canal, they’ve built Miyawaki forests (which become self-sustainable after 3 years), amphitheatres, cycle tracks among other add-ons. “Customized projects like these are needed throughout the city,” he said.

Another example is the new Pedestrian Plaza.

“People initially thought we’d chop down trees to build the plaza,” Cherubal said. They fast realized that people can’t spend time hanging out and drinking tea in a public space without tree cover, especially in a hot city like Chennai. “We actually increased the tree cover of the entire area.”

According to Cherubal, there are other more visible benefits of trees, in particular shade. Some of the reasons people use cars as their mode of transportation, for example, is the ability to rest, and protection from the weather outside.

“If you want to move people from cars to public transport, you need more walking places, more cycling, more places to rest,” Cherubal said. “Trees also bring the temperature down, and each tree becomes important in a hot city like ours. The shade of trees then can have a non-linear effect of increase in public transport”

“We can’t get back the lost greenery, but can try to make up as much as possible.”


Also read: Can We Biohack Our Mental Health?


 

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How the Lack of Greenery in Your Neighbourhood Is Impacting Your Mental Health