BBC Wildlife Magazine
Lauriane Suyin Chalmin-Pui reveals why gardening is the key to well-being
Well-being fellow, Royal Horticultural Society and postdoctoral researcher, University of Sheffield
Regular exposure to even a tiny patch of nature can make a world of difference to our overall health and well-being, as Lauriane Suyin Chalmin-Pui set out to demonstrate.
You would think that people would jump at the chance to have someone plant up their front garden in exchange for filling in a few questionnaires and sending off some saliva samples. But when geographer Lauriane Suyin Chalmin-Pui began recruiting Salford residents for her study into the impact of front gardens on health and well-being, she found the exact opposite to be the case.
“I knocked on a lot of doors – I think it was about 300. A lot of people told me to go away,” she says.
Chalmin-Pui wasn’t necessarily surprised by this response. “It does kind of sound like a scam,” she acknowledges. She persevered, explaining that she wanted to find out if residential planting might offer city dwellers similar therapeutic effects as those demonstrated by urban green spaces such as parks. To do so, she would be planting flowers in previously bare front gardens and asking residents to report how stressed they felt, as well as collecting saliva samples in order to measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Some residents were concerned that the plants would be stolen. Others were worried that results from the saliva samples would end up in their medical records. Several said they were no good at gardening, so any attempts would be pointless.
“We did have to convince the residents [at the same time] as we convinced ourselves. This was a trial run,” says Chalmin-Pui.
But, in the end, it worked beautifully, with perceived stress levels falling by 6 per cent after the introduction of the plants. All residents reported that their health or well-being had improved as a result of their new front garden, and 52 per cent said that their front garden helped them to feel happier. Furthermore, while saliva samples taken before the intervention revealed healthy cortisol patterns in only 24 per cent of residents, this rose to 53 per cent of residents following the planting.
“The plants were giving people a more positive outlook on life,” Chalmin-Pui says. “It felt like we were pioneering a new method to quantify the impact of plants on stress, but on a very small scale.”
She hopes that these findings might “help policymakers, especially at local levels, to make more informed decisions about the value of gardens”. That could be in terms of planning, offering guidance around paving gardens, or health strategy, with GPs able to prescribe gardening in the same way that they might prescribe physical activity. It has applications for urban planning, too, she says – greener streets are more walkable streets.
According to Chalmin-Pui, “We need more integrative thinking between the environmental green space, the built environment and the health sectors.” Jo Caird
I knocked on about 300 doors. A lot of people told me to go away. It does kind of sound like a scam.