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Land Matters: Research Shows…Oh, Who Knows?

“Want to be healthier?” asked a recent post on Outside magazine’s website. “Move to a place that has a large park nearby.” Okay, so get that in your Reminders app. This advice came in a spate of stories after a study done at the University of Exeter Medical School in Britain purported to show that moving to a “greener” area can lead to improvements in your mental health for as long as three years after you leave behind your not-so-green former home. Also, people who find themselves moving to less green areas than they previously inhabited seem to encounter some kind of mental distress, at least in the year before they move (yes, before), though their mental health seems to rebound over the next few years. So apparently—if inconclusively—the green effect works both ways.

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“These findings are important for urban planners thinking about introducing new green spaces to our towns and cities,” the principal researcher, Ian Alcock, was quoted as saying on the website of Medical News Today. The Atlantic Cities website quoted Alcock’s summary of his findings in a video that accompanied the study’s public relations rollout. “When people move to a greener urban area, they experience an immediate and sustained improvement in their mental health,” Alcock said. We should all hope he’s right, and that his study is sound. But we might never know. In story after breezy story about Alcock’s research by media outlets large and small, from Natural Healing Health News to the Huffington Post to BBC News, he is the only one talking. There is not a peer in sight, from public health or psychology or any other field, to put his findings into context.

Stories about research like this are surfacing all the time in the ever-excitable, city-loving environmental media that are fast proliferating online, where success is measured in clicks and six posts a day are never enough. It’s no real fault of the researchers, who probably could not care less whether their colleagues are consulted independently or not for a smell test of their work. Some new bit of evidence appears from scientists to show that, yep, we knew it; the way we’ve arranged the planet is all wrong. The assiduous reporters of all things urban are on it! “Scientific Proof that Cars and Cities Just Don’t Mix” is a December headline from Planetizen for a piece that says “what many Planetizen readers already know”—namely, that it appears, according to researchers at the University of Surrey, to be more pleasant to experience a city on foot or on a bike than by car, based on participants’ responses to videos they were asked to view (does Surrey not have real streets?). Actually, this is not even a piece, but is a piece about a piece, in Pacific Standard, about a study, which is equally incurious as to where the Surrey study fits as a recent instance of behavioral research, which might be even more crucial because there is so much of this kind of research to process these days.

But back to our first example. Alcock’s study is said to be groundbreaking because it is longitudinal rather than cross-sectional. It lasted five years, followed 1,000 people, and factored out influences such as money, jobs, and education to isolate the mental health effects of green areas over less green ones in the course of a move. This still leaves plenty of potential squish in the results, but you get the idea. Also squishy, from reading the stories alone, is: What does green mean? Hard to say. It might mean leafy streets, a regional park nearby, or full-on private pleasure grounds (we should all be so healthy). Does a dusty soccer field or a vigorous patch of kudzu out the window count? Do evergreens count more? Or can my area that’s green in summer make me happier all year-round?

It would be a huge help, in this quest to put forth encouraging findings about our environments and well-being, if anyone would simply ask around to cross-examine them. It’s easy to conceive that the green life is a happier one. But in looking for true association, correlation, or even, gasp, solid evidence of cause and effect, you want to know whether this is the most brilliant piece of experimental design in a generation, a fairly decent step forward in the case for more green space, or a thin longitudinal study in need of more longitude. So for now, play it safe; plant more trees, so they can get nice and big while you wait for more data.

Bradford McKee
Editor

Comments
susaneri@iastate.edu January 28, 2014 10:22 AM
Wouldn't it be nice if we could show correlation or even solid cause and effect, indeed. Community development work is messy, takes a long time to show results, and is too complicated for traditional research design. We are entering a new era where research paradigms need to shift to an appreciation of both quantitative and qualitative data. Traditional cause-and-effect studies are not possible with this type of research.
tryan@jacobsryan.com January 28, 2014 12:30 PM
Brad, Great column, and I agree about the squish. The questions in the next to last paragraph are right on, and I would also add blue to green. Does water increase the beneficial therapeutic results? Terry
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