Vitamin N for city dwellers

Taking a nature break in the city can make you healthier and smarter.

Thousands of years ago, our ancestors lived in hunter-gatherer societies. These days, most of us find our food in other ways, but we are on the hunt for peace and quiet so we can gather our thoughts.

The people who build cities know this. The City of Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan has 7 major goals, one of which is “greening the city.” That task includes providing “a high-quality park and open-space system.”

 An increasing number of studies reveal why this is an important goal. To put it simply: green spaces make us smarter and healthier. Communities that rank high in active living see a range of health benefits. These include less obesity and diabetes among residents, as well as reduced rates of depression and high blood pressure. The Trust for Public Land recently ranked Minneapolis and St. Paul as the top two U.S. cities in providing access to parks. It's no coincidence that the Twin Cities are also the healthiest urban region in the country.

As for that intelligence boost, it results from lower stress levels.  In “Last Child in the Woods” and “Vitamin N,” Richard Louv writes that our need for nature becomes more acute as our lives grow more high-tech. He coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe our plight. Other researchers back him up. A National Geographic article called “This is Your Brain on Nature,” follows cognitive psychologist David Strayer and his students on a backpacking trip. The students and the writer of the article perform better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days in the wilderness.

But there’s no need to head for the woods every time you need to recharge your batteries. The Center for Active Design says that even urban greenery has big benefits. And those benefits are not limited to improved health. 

"People who live in neighborhoods with access to parks and green space are more likely to report that they trust their neighbors and believe community members are willing to help each other.”

Perhaps more surprisingly, a recent Danish study found that these effects can be long-lasting. Researchers looked at data going back to 1985 and determined that people who grew up surrounded by nature — wilderness, large parks or urban green space — had a 55% lower incidence of mental health issues.

Findings like these suggest that complete communities — neighbourhoods that give residents the chance to walk to shops, restaurants and doctors’ offices as well as green spaces — have many benefits. It all means that pathways don’t only lead through the park. They can also take you to better physical and mental health.

April 8th, 2019
Updated: April 10th, 2019

Stopping to smell the greenery energizes people and communities.