NEWS 2021-05-11

Health boost from urban nature

Your local city park may be getting you fitter, according to new research showing how access to natural areas in cities can improve human health by supporting physical activity. Trees lining a street can be that extra incentive for people to take a longer stroll or choose to bike to work. The researchers plan to equip city planners with tools to create healthier, more sustainable cities around the world.

Photo: Izf / Shutterstock

The research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences lays out how access to nature increases people’s physical activity—and therefore overall health—in cities. Lack of physical activity leads to 3.2 million deaths globally every year and results in the U.S. alone in $117 billion a year in related health care costs. It may seem like an intuitive connection, but the new research closes an important gap in understanding how building nature into cities can support overall human wellbeing.

” Over the past year  we’ve learned how valuable and fulfilling it can be to spend time outdoors in nature, especially for city-dwellers,” said study lead author Roy Remme, environmental biology professor at Leiden University. “We want to help city planners understand where green spaces might best support people’s health, so everyone can receive nature’s benefits.”

This is the second article in the ongoing collaboration between Stanford University, Beijer Institute and Stockholm Resilience Centre, highlighting various health benefits from nature areas in cities. Whereas the first article focused on mental health benefits, this second study zooms in on how urban green areas can promote physical activity.

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Mapping connections between movement and greenery

The team, including Beijer Institute programme director Therese Lindahl, combined decades of public health research with information on nature’s benefits to people in cities. They considered how activities like dog walking, jogging, cycling and community gardening are supported by cities’ natural spaces. They also factored in things like distance to urban greenery, feelings of safety and accessibility, to understand how those elements can alter the benefits of nature for different people. From tree-lined sidewalks to city parks and waterfronts, the team created a model framework to map out urban nature’s physical health benefits.

The framework explores how people might choose to walk an extra few blocks to enjoy a blooming garden or bike to work along a river path, reaping the health benefits of physical activity they may have missed if not motivated by natural spaces.

“Surprisingly, given how important physical activity is for our health, and that for many people living in urban areas this activity takes place in urban green areas – there was relatively little research done connecting the dots,” Therese Lindahl said. “With this new framework we now have a tool for more exactly pin-pointing the research gaps which in turn will be very valuable input for city planners.”

New health model software developed

The research will ultimately serve as the basis for a new health model in Natural Capital Project software—free, open-source tools that map the many benefits nature provides people. The software was recently used to inform an assessment of 775 European cities to understand the potential of nature-based solutions for addressing climate change. Eventually, the new health model software will be available to city planners, investors and anyone else interested in new arguments and tools for targeting investments in nature in cities.

“It might not surprise us that nature stimulates physical activity, but the associated health benefits—from reducing cancer risks to promoting metabolic and other functioning—are really quite astonishing,”said Beijer Fellow Gretchen Daily, senior author on the paper and faculty director of the Stanford Natural Capital Project.

Equity in access to nature

As our world becomes more urbanized and city-centric, the ability to easily access outdoor natural spaces becomes increasingly challenging, especially for overburdened communities. Identifying where urban nature is missing in vulnerable or overburdened communities—then working to fill those gaps—could provide people with valuable new opportunities to improve their health. The researchers hope the new study will equip urban planners with a more complete understanding of the benefits nature can provide their communities.

Text: Sarah Cafasso, Natural Capital Project

Remme, R. P., H. Frumkin, A. D. Guerry, A. C. King, L. Mandle, C. Sarabu, G. N. Bratman, B. Giles-Corti, P. Hamel, B. Han, J. L. Hicks, P. James, J. J. Lawler, T. Lindahl, H. Liu, Y. Lu, B. Oosterbroek, B. Paudel, J. F. Sallis, J. Schipperijn, R. Sosič, S. de Vries, B. W. Wheeler, S. A. Wood, T. Wu, and G. C. Daily. 2021. An ecosystem service perspective on urban nature, physical activity, and health. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118 (22) e2018472118.