Friday, 22 July 2011

"Greener" neighborhoods may not necessarily make for happier residents

(A neighborhood with decent amounts of "green." Does the green make the residents happier?)

An increasingly popular area of conservation research focuses on measuring the psychological value of nature. Studies in several locations have shown that people are happier in greener environments and those with more animals (in terms of both numbers of individuals and numbers of species). Some environmentalists have expressed concern that increasing levels of urbanization will lead to both physical and emotional separation between people and nature, one consequence of which might be a skewed perception of "biodiversity"--with subsequent impacts on whether or not people will support conservation initiatives that aim to improve species abundance and richness in various habitats.

While most of the previous studies have focused on areas such as parks, where people temporarily relocate for recreational purposes, recent work by scientists at Australia's Charles Sturt University has investigated for the first time how human well-being and "connectedness" with nature vary in relation to different levels of urbanization in the neighborhoods where they reside. The authors collected data on demographics and psychological status using a survey distributed to residents by mail. In order to characterize the habitat, they measured species richness, species abundance, vegetation cover, vegetation density, and level of urban development in each of the neighborhoods surveyed.

(A typical "peri-urban" neighborhood--one that is between the suburbs and the countryside, and therefore has a fair amount of vegetation in addition to anthropogenic development.)

In contrast to previous research, this study found that residents were not overwhelmingly impacted by the "greenness" of their environment. Both personal and neighborhood well-being were predicted more by demographic variables such as age, number of years the resident had lived in the neighborhood, and social/economic status. Likewise, "connectedness" to nature was less affected by levels of urbanization than by general activity levels and demographics such as gender and, again, length of residency, and social/economic status.

However, using separate analyses, the researchers did find that the odds of both personal and neighborhood well-being increased with increases in "greenness." For instance, the odds of higher personal well-being increased by 55% from the lowest to the highest levels of vegetation cover measured in the surveyed neighborhoods. There were also some interesting trends within certain demographic groups. For example, well-being among females decreased by 124% from the lowest to the highest levels of urbanization, indicating that women were more sensitive to a lack of nature in their environments--potentially because they were more likely to spend more time at home. Another intriguing trend was related to education: Residents with more advanced degrees reported stronger feelings of "connectedness" at higher levels of abundance.

Given that the findings of this study were so at odds with previous reports, the authors have pondered what additional factors may have influenced their results. They conjectured that residents' feelings may be influenced by the proximity of other natural areas that are near, but not in, their neighborhoods--perhaps an urban dwelling is more tolerable when you know you can easily escape to a park located down the road. The scientists also noted that there was substantial variation in the amount and use of yard/garden space at each residence, which may have obscured patterns that would have been found had they distributed the surveys across more uniform environments. One question the researchers are particularly interested in investigating in the future is whether residents respond differently to native and non-native species. Regardless, one thing seems clear: The relationship between humans and nature is not an easy one to describe or predict.

Luck, G.W., Davidson, P., Boxall, D., and Smallbone, L. 2011. Relations between urban bird and plant communities and human well-being and connection to nature. Conservation Biology 25(4):816-826.

Thanks to the following for providing the images used in this post:

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