City Dwellers Live Longer When They Have Access to Green Space in Their Urban Environment

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According to a study published this week in The Lancet, having access to green space in urban areas is beneficial for the health of individuals and communities — and even has the potential to increase our lifespan. Funded by the World Health Organization, the new study cited links between green spaces and better mental health, improved immunity, healthier pregnancies, and reductions in heart disease. Ultimately, the researchers discovered that having green space was tied to a lower risk of premature death.

In fact, having more green space was associated with greater reductions of this risk. For example, boosting the presence of greenery by just 10 percent was associated with a 4 percent lower risk of premature death. “More green space is better for health,” concluded Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, who works as a director at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health. “People actually live longer if there is more green space around.” He told the Thomas Reuters Foundation that according to his team’s research, an ideal urban environment would need to accommodate 20 to 30 percent green space somewhere within its design.

The study was a large one, including data from seven countries, from cities in the U.S., Canada, Switzerland, China, Spain, Australia, and Italy. But many cities around the world that were not included in the study are currently looking to expand their green space as a way to combat climate change and improve the quality of life for its inhabitants. Places like the United Kingdom have even pledged to plant more trees at the national level, amounting to a goal of between 30 to 60 million trees annually (though the government has fallen short of their pledges in the past few years).

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A separate report from 2017 found that among major U.S. cities, life expectancies can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, and that these life expectancies are correlated to (though not necessary caused by) the presence of urban nature within that neighborhood. This finding suggests that investing in urban tree programs could be one way to address far-reaching health disparities among neighbors. These initiatives are not only an ethical investment, but a smart economic investment as well since they may even save cities money by helping to reduce the cost of health care and improve worker productivity, presumably due to the health boost that people get from urban nature.

The benefits of nature in urban settings go beyond the fact that green space might increase opportunities for people to participate in exercise, which has obvious implications on our health. Evidence suggests that green space may also contribute to better wellbeing through the reduction of noise and air pollution, moderating the effects of heat islands in urban settings, and relief of stress — all of which are beneficial simply because they allow people the opportunity to exist in a green space. Bringing this wisdom into our increasingly urban existence is one path forward to longer, healthier lifestyles.