When a city’s trashy lots are cleaned up, res­i­dents’ men­tal health im­proves

The Borneo Post - Nature and health - - Wellness - By Mary Hui

VA­CANT city lots with over­grown weeds and trash are ugly, for sure, but re­search shows there is yet an­other rea­son to clean them up and make them green: It lifts res­i­dents’ moods and feel­ings of self-worth, ac­cord­ing to a new study.

The study, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion, found that when empty spa­ces in Philadel­phia were im­proved, there was a sig­nif­i­cant jump in over­all men­tal health for nearby res­i­dents, par­tic­u­larly for those strug­gling eco­nom­i­cally.

“There’s a grow­ing body of ev­i­dence that green space can have an im­pact on men­tal health, and that’s par- tic­u­larly im­por­tant for peo­ple living in poorer neigh­bour­hoods,” said Eu­ge­nia South, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of emer­gency medicine at the Perel­man School of Medicine at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia and one of the au­thors of the study.

This lat­est study shows that if cities are will­ing to re­move trash, plant trees and grass and put up a short wooden fence, it is likely to make peo­ple feel less de­pressed and worth­less. In Philadel­phia alone, there are more than 43,000 va­cant lots. Re­searchers ex­am­ined 541 of them, ran­domly cho­sen across the city, and di­vided them into three groups.

One group got the full treat­ment: trash re­moval, land grad­ing, plant­ing new grass and trees and in­stalling a low wooden fence around the perime­ter. A sec­ond group got lim­ited beau­ti­fy­ing: trash clean-up and some grass mow­ing. The third con­trol group got noth­ing.

The study sur­veyed 342 ran­domly cho­sen res­i­dents living near the lots. They ap­proached the res­i­dents 18 months be­fore and af­ter the clean-up, ask­ing how of­ten they felt ner­vous, hope­less, rest­less, de­pressed and worth­less.

Re­sults showed that when a patch got an in­vest­ment of be­tween $1,000 and $3,000 - the full treat­ment - res­i­dents living nearby who had in­comes be­low the poverty line said they felt hap­pier. Specif­i­cally, their feel­ings of de­pres­sion de­creased by more than 68 per cent.

Peo­ple living near lots that had only trash re­moved, but were not greened, showed no sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment to their men­tal health. This is prob­a­bly be­cause no ad­di­tional green space was cre­ated, the re­searchers ar­gue.

South said the find­ings show that “there’s some­thing that’s ac­tu­ally im­por­tant about the green space,” and that the men­tal health ben­e­fits stem not just from trash re­moval, which sig­nals in­creased in­vest­ment in a par­tic­u­lar neigh­bour­hood.

The en­hance­ments to the lots in the study were per­formed by the Penn­syl­va­nia Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety, which since 2004 has been “clean­ing and green­ing” va­cant ar­eas across Philadel­phia, help­ing to cre­ate thou­sands of parks and com­mu­nity gar­dens.

Re­searchers stressed that this is a low-cost way for cities to help im­prove res­i­dents men­tal health - it costs an av­er­age of $1,600 to green a va­cant lot, plus $180 per year for main­te­nance - and is also a way to pro­mote health and safety. “It’s a rel­a­tively low-cost in­ter­ven­tion . . . and it’s a pretty sim­ple in­ter­ven­tion,” South said. “It’s very sim­ple to repli­cate. It’s not com­pli­cated and could be easy for a city that hasn’t done this.”

And be­cause it is af­ford­able for cities, South hopes that va­cant-lot green­ing would be an at­trac­tive mea­sure for pol­i­cy­mak­ers look­ing to tackle ur­ban blight in cities ev­ery­where. “I think this pa­per gives pol­i­cy­mak­ers who are in­ter­ested (in green­ing ur­ban spa­ces) more ev­i­dence and back­ing to put more re­sources into this,” she said. One of the most im­por­tant take­aways from the study, South said, is that “we can make a dent on health dis­par­ity.” – Wash­ing­ton Post

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