Fall, cities, and mental health. What do these three things have in common? Today, more human beings live in urban areas than ever before. Tomorrow, that number will grow. Urban centres have a lot to offer — convenience, better access to services — but is it just a coincidence that as urbanization has increased, there has also been a decrease in mental health?

It is important to consider one of the factors ‘taken away’ by urbanization: access to natural environments.

There are primarily two competing theories in the environmental psychology literature that account for the restorative power of nature, and they both rely heavily on the theory of evolution.

Stress Reduction Theory (SRT) posits that nature has a healing power that lies in an unconscious, autonomic response [1]. Some of the places in nature linked most to this theory include waterfalls and high altitudes overlooking a visible horizon. These areas may have a stress reducing effect because evolutionarily speaking, they were areas in which our species tended to have greater rates of survival [2] (e.g., landscapes with views of water due to their great vegetation and high landscapes allow for the spotting of food sources, potential threats, and protection.

One of the biggest proponents of the SRT theory, Roger Ulrich, argued that these landscapes helped to moderate and diminish states of high arousal and negative thoughts within minutes through psychophysiological pathways [3]. In a series of studies, he instructed a group of mildly stressed participants to view sets of slides: one group saw nature scenes with vegetation and trees, while the other group viewed city landscapes with little to no vegetation. Self-ratings of elation and affection were greater for the group that viewed the natural, vegetative scenery while urban viewers actually reported increases in aggravation, anxiety, and feelings of sadness [4, 5].

The second theory, Rachel and Stephen Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory (ART), centers on the power of nature to replenish certain types of attention through cognitive processes [1]. For instance, directed attention is imperative to focus and concentration, and researchers argue that our urban life taxes this capability more than situations from natural environments have in the past [6]. Historically, this theory is interesting because of it’s emphasis on the intentional, cognitive processes that may find themselves under the assault of modernization, development, and environmental degradation. Accordingly, many cultures with strong ties to their natural environments have reported an increase in feelings of isolation and depression as access to nature has decreased [1].

It’s hard for the research to be conclusive on which of these theories is more correct. Simone Robinson, a fourth year undergraduate student in Mental Health Studies and also one of the coordinators of the University of Toronto Scarborough’s Outdoor Recreation Program, can see the pros of both theories. Robinson notes that it’s “probably the scenery” that betters her mental well-being the most, noting that “it’s so nice when the leaves start to change colour.”

The unconscious benefits of being in nature (SRT) are also highlighted by Robinson: “There’s something about nature that makes me feel safe, but not secluded. When I go with [white water] rafting with students, the calmness and vastness of being in water is comforting.”

Being a city dweller, she also loves the escape that nature offers, stating that “nature allows you to unwind and disconnect from everyday life; it’s easy to get in your head and sometimes you can be distracted and on your phone too much, but nature offers an escape.” This is just one person’s experience with nature, but it’s easy to see properties of both SRT and ART in play here.

Research focusing on the impact of people’s natural environments on mental health is a relatively new development in the literature. In 2014, the World Health Organization’s ‘social determinants of mental health’ policy paper noted that “living close to natural environments and engaging in outdoor activities […] have known benefits for mental health.” The paper, part of the WHO’s 2013-2020 Mental Health Action Plan, calls for communities around the globe to implement actions to support mental health through environmental interventions [8].

Environmental interventions can be implemented in a variety of ways. In hospital settings, it could be through the intentional design of healing gardens and natural areas. Benefits of these gardens include stress relief, potentially through a cognitive mechanism like ART, and can lead to an improvement in overall wellness for both patients and health care workers [9].

The average person, especially those living in urban areas, would do well to get outside to natural areas in general. There are many benefits of walking, but a recent study out of Stanford University found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to people who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a  cognitive mechanism underlying depression. That brain region, the subgenus prefrontal cortex, is active during a process called rumination: the act of repetitive thought focused on negative emotions [10].

Although attention restoration effects have been observed in participants who simply watch films or photographs that depict natural environments [11, 12], studies that have directly compared simulated and real environments on their restorative properties suggest that they are not equivalent [13, 14]. This is why programs like Robinson’s Outdoor Recreation program have been popping up across North American post-secondary institutions. It’s an ingenious way to get people, especially those who are stressed, outside and active in a social way, leading to greater emotional and mental well-being.


By: Christina Gizzo

Edited by: Veerpal Bambrah

Image by: Christina Gizzo



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