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‘Forest bathing’ is the route to better mental health for urban youth – study

Image by Khusen Rustamov from Pixabay

Incorporating nature into how cities are designed can help significantly improve the mental health of young people living in urban settings, according to a new study.

Researchers in Canada found that ‘forest bathing’, which simply means being calm and quiet ‘amongst the trees’ and observing the surrounding natural world while breathing deeply can be a powerful de-stressing tool for youth.

The study, conducted at the University of Waterloo, claims to be the first of its kind to collect on-site, real-time data from adolescents about their emotional responses to urban environments like streets, parks and waterways. Natural urban spaces, say the researchers, consistently resulted more positive outcomes.

Leia Minaker is associate professor in the School of Planning, and director of the Future Cities Initiative, part of the university’s efforts to address the need for creating healthy and prosperous urban futures for the wider community.

She says that while the findings may not surprise most people, it is significant that the study specifically highlights how much anxiety can be reduced depending on your setting.

“Teens are frequently excluded from any kind of decision about the cities they live in,” said Minaker. “It’s important to get their opinions and quantify their experiences because childhood experiences influence many long-term health and disease outcomes.”

Using what they call an ‘anxiousness scale’, researchers found that standing and looking at an urban lake for just a few minutes led to anxiety levels dropping by nine per cent. Conversely, their anxiousness scores were 13 per cent higher when standing in a busy downtown location for the same length of time. This also takes into account influencing factors like age, gender, ethnicity, mental health diagnosis, and social status.

The researchers say as urbanisation accelerates rapidly, it is ‘vital to understand urban environments’ impact on youth better’, particularly as depression and anxiety are among the leading causes of illness among adolescents.

‘Evidence that planners can use’

Nature motifs or patterns on buildings, natural sights in urban environments, such as lakes and public activity parks, and landscape elements, like gardens and trees, were found to enhance positive emotional experiences for youth. While these urban characteristics are unique to adolescents, they might be interpreted differently from adults who pursue other activities. Adults, for example, might be more likely to walk or run in green spaces, whereas youth are more likely to skateboard or hang out.

In designing cities with health and sustainability for all age groups in mind, these findings provide clear evidence that planners, city builders, and healthcare providers can use to advocate for specific natural urban design features.

Next up, says the team, is to uncover a link in mental health data relating to the long-term economic and social impacts. Future research will assess the mental and physical health of kids living in high-rise apartment buildings, another area of research that is poorly understood in North America.

The study, Associations between real-time, self-reported adolescent mental health and urban and architectural design concepts, has also been published in the Cities & Health scientific journal.

Author: Simon Weedy

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