Calgary's Green Spaces may be Making us Smarter

And here’s the science to tell us how.

Calgary definitely makes the grade on nature within our urban setting.

78% of Calgarians told us that they feel they have good access to green spaces. The City of Calgary puts “providing access to green space for Calgarians throughout the city” as one of their 7 major goals in our Municipal Development Plan. Our newer, “complete communities” designs include significant parks, lakes and access to pathways.

Why do Calgarians place such importance on urban green space? What does it mean to have access to nature in our cities? It turns out a lot more than you’d think.

Intuition tells us that nature is necessary for our wellbeing. Now it’s been proven with science. When we slow down, stop the busywork, and take in beautiful natural surroundings, not only do we feel restored, but our mental performance improves too.

In an informative National Geographic article called “This is Your Brain on Nature,” cognitive psychologist David Strayer establishes that participants in his study group performed 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking.

But can a stroll in city green space do the same? As long as there are trees, it seems the answer is yes. Writer David Gessner explains why.

Research built on the attention restoration theory proposed by environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan showed promising results. An experiment found that a 50-minute walk in a botanical garden improved executive attention skills, such as short-term memory, while walking along a city street did not. 

“Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost,” the researchers wrote in their paper. "It exists," they continued, "and it’s called 'interacting with nature.'”

- Stephen Kaplan, University of Michigan

Strayer showed that people simply living near more green space reported less mental distress, even after adjusting for income, education, and employment (all of which are also correlated with health).

Nature in cities is good for your body, too. Author Florence Williams goes on in her National Geographic article to explain: “In 2009 a team of Dutch researchers found a lower incidence of 15 diseases—including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines—in people who lived within about a half mile of green space. 

And in 2015 an international team overlaid health questionnaire responses from more than 31,000 Toronto residents onto a map of the city, block by block. Those living on blocks with more trees showed a boost in heart and metabolic health equivalent to what one would experience from a $20,000 gain in income. Lower mortality and fewer stress hormones circulating in the blood have also been connected to living close to green space.”

Looking to feel better and smarter? Check out Calgary’s more than 8,000 hectares of parkland for a walk, a skate or a bike ride before you try that next mental task. 

February 16th, 2016
Updated: September 18th, 2017

Our brains aren’t tireless three-pound machines; they’re easily fatigued. Nature can help.