Benefits of Plants to People, Communities and Urban Ecosystems: Part 1:
The link between horticulture and health and well-being and to urban ecosystems has been scientifically documented for centuries. In 1812, psychiatrist, professor, and Declaration of Independence signer Dr. Benjamin Rush reported in his book “Medical Inquiries and Observations, Upon the Diseases of the Mind” (Rush 1812) that patients “digging in the dirt” fared better than their non-gardener counterparts. Since then, hundreds of scientific studies have been published documenting benefits of active (e.g. gardening/landscaping) and passive (e.g. viewing nature through a window, taking a walk in a park) interactions between people and plants and the value of plants in urban ecosystems.
Benefits related to cognitive functioning, societal and community health, and mental health are summarized below. Ecosystem and physical health benefits from interacting with nature will be discussed in next month's blog.
Improved Cognitive Functioning
Several studies link participation in gardening activities to enhanced cognitive functioning (Bratman et al. 2012; Dadvand et al. 2015; Kuo et al. 2021; Ohly et al. 2016; Park et al. 2019; Stevenson et al. 2018; Wells 2000. Research conducted by Kuo and Sullivan (2001) and Mayer et al. (2009) found that exposure to nature in urban settings can enhance attention span, working memory, and concentration. Both youth and adults who participate in greening and gardening projects were also found to have higher cognitive functioning in the areas of short and long term memory, focus and concentration (Dadvand et al. 2015; Markevych et al. 2019; Matsuoka 2010; Meuwese et al. 2021; Park et al. 2019; Stevenson et al. 2018) and reduced symptoms of ADHD (Faber Taylor and Kuo (2011).
Other studies summarized in a literature review (Williams and Dixon 2013) found that kindergarten and middle school students who participated in school gardening activities linked to classroom learning in biology, nutrition, mathematics, and other subjects earned higher grades and attained greater academic achievement than non-participants. A recent study linked high tree canopy coverage on school grounds with higher achievement scores in math and reading in middle school students across a wide range of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds (Kuo et al. 2021). The experiential (hands-on) learning elements of school gardens can also bridge the gap between traditional and non-traditional learners due to its multi-sensory nature (Kolb and Kolb 2005). School gardens play an especially important academic role among elementary-aged youth from low-wealth inner city communities exposed to outdoor experiential learning that was previously lacking (Dyg et al. 2020; Kuo et al. 2021; Ray et al. 2016; Williams et al. 2013). However, Hoover et al. (2021) found that successful, sustainable school gardens require strong administrative and district support in addition to enthusiasm and support from parents and teachers.
Enhancement of Societal and Community Health
Urban greening projects that remediate vacant land, landscape streets and neighborhoods, create community gardens, and improve the health of wetlands and undeveloped natural environments can build community cohesiveness, neighborhood bonding, and mutual community pride (Diamant and Waterhouse 2010; Draper 2010; Glover et al. 2005; Hartwig and Mason 2016; Kuo and Sullivan 2001; Moyer et al. 2019; Neo and Chua 2017; Saldivar-Tanaka and Krasny 2004). With blighted uncared-for vacant lots comprising nearly 15% of total land area of U.S. cities (Branas et al. 2018) these opportunities are substantial. Results also indicate that gardening and urban greening projects unite people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds who enjoy growing and sharing produce from their native regions (Agustina and Beilin 2012; Baker 2004; Cruz-Piedrahita et al. 2020; Dyg et al. 2016; Hartwig and Mason 2016; Teig 2009). Building a sense of community through social engagement, celebrations, and communal meals has also been found to benefit both gardeners and non-gardener participants (Ober et al. 2008).
Well-designed and maintained urban green spaces not only bring people together, but can reduce crime, gun violence and enhance the safety and cohesiveness of urban neighborhoods, as summarized in several literature reviews (Bogar and Byer 2016: Mancus and Campbell 2018; Shepley et al. 2019). Some of the strongest links reported in the literature involve crime reduction in vegetated and well maintained urban neighborhoods and walkways (Branas et al. 2018; Demotto 2006; Garvin et al. 2013; Locke et al. 2017) and a reduction in gun violence in neighborhoods with green spaces including trees (Branas et al. 2018; Kondo 2017; Schertz et al. 2021; Wolfe et al. 2012). One study found that community-based greening projects that vegetated vacant lots was an effective strategy to improve neighborhood safety, resulting in a nearly 40% decrease in violent crime (Heinze et al. 2018). It should be noted that other researchers (Groff and McCord 2012) found a higher incidence of opportunistic crime in high tree canopy covered areas, perhaps due to concealed illegal activities. Another study found that actively participating in community greening projects from design through implementation and maintenance can result in a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction (Murphy-Dunning 2009). Neighbors caring for urban green spaces together also tend to spend more time conversing and building important social relationships than do non-participants (Peters et al. 2010).
Improved Mental Health
Multiple literature reviews link interactions with nature to improved mental health in both youth and adults (Bowler et al. 2010; Clatworthy et al. 2013; Coventry et al. 2021; Cruz-Piedrahita et. al. 2020; De Vries et al. 2003; Tillmann et al. 2018) in studies conducted in parks, gardens, urban green spaces, and even shopping malls. The restorative impact of simply viewing plants has also been widely studied. Walking through a park and even viewing a natural scene through a window can lead to a sense of well-being, restfulness, reflection, and reduced mental fatigue (Shanahan et al. 2019). More recently, Dzhambov et al. (2020) found lower rates of depression in students homebound for long periods of time during the COVID-19 pandemic with views of plants (indoors and out) compared to students who lacked plant interactions. Bowler's (2010) literature review also highlighted strong associations for self-reported positive emotions and lower levels of anger and sadness in natural settings compared to non-natural settings. Interactions with nature can also reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety (Beyer et al. 2014; Gonzalez et al. 2010; Lee and Maheswaran 2011; Van den Berg and Custers 2011; Wilson and Christensen (2011).
Thompson Coon et al. (2011) reported that exercising outdoors in natural settings led to greater feelings of positivity and revitalization, less tension, anger, and depression compared to the same amount of exercise indoors. Other studies link gardening to feelings of peace and contentment (Meuwese et al. 2021; Shanahan et al. 2015; Shanahan et al. 2019). MacKerron and Mourato (2013) reported that individuals who interact with nature are often happier than those lacking this interaction and Ambrose et al. (2020) reported that home gardeners growing food crops experienced particularly high levels of happiness and meaningfulness. Bakolis et al. (2018) linked two elements of mental well-being (optimism and energy) to interactions with nature while Van den Berg and Clusters (2011) and Wood et al. (2016) found a link between engagement with nature and a reduction in stress. While White et al. (2019) determined that these benefits are maximized when individuals spend 120 minutes a week or more interacting with nature, shorter periods of exposure are also beneficial (Shanahan et al. 2016; Shanahan et al. 2019; White et al. 2019).
Other studies reported a link between growing food and a deepened sense of purpose (Tzoulas 2007; Wiesinger 2006). Digging in the soil can be a welcome distraction from busy lives laden with deadlines, traffic jams, and other everyday stressors. Focusing on the needs of plants, whether it be watering, fertilizing, harvesting or other tasks, can prove pleasantly distracting, providing time for reflection and even problem resolution (Capaldi et al. 2015; Meuwese et al. 2021; Stevenson et al. 2018). Several research papers report important positive roles that plants play related to mental health as impacts of climate change increase (Cryder et al. 2006; Dillman-Hasso et al. 2021; Doherty 2018; Fernandez et al. 2015) related to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder, stress, anxiety and others.
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