Contact with nature in cities reduces loneliness, study shows
Accessed from the world wide web at 15:00 hrs 20.12.21.
Contact with nature in cities significantly reduces feelings of loneliness, according to a team of scientists.
Loneliness is a major public health concern, their research shows, and can raise a person’s risk of death by 45% – more than air pollution, obesity or alcohol abuse.
The study is the first to assess how the environment can affect loneliness. It used real-time data, collected via a smartphone app, rather than relying on people’s memory of how they were feeling.
The research found that feelings of overcrowding increased loneliness by an average of 39%. But when people were able to see trees or the sky, or hear birds, feelings of loneliness fell by 28%. Feelings of social inclusion also cut loneliness by 21%, and when these feelings coincided with contact with nature the beneficial effect was boosted by a further 18%.
The findings pointed to interventions to reduce loneliness, the researchers said: “Specific measures that increase social inclusion and contact with nature should be implemented, especially in densely populated cities.”
Time spent in nature is known to boost wellbeing, with woodland walks estimated to save the UK at least £185m a year in mental health costs, for example. Natural places in cities could reduce loneliness by enhancing feelings of attachment to a place, or by providing more opportunity to socialise, the researchers said.
The study challenged the traditional view of cities as places that are always bad for mental health and loneliness, according to Prof Andrea Mechelli, part of the research team and an expert in early intervention in mental health at King’s College London in the UK. “There can be aspects such as natural features and social inclusivity which can actually decrease loneliness,” he added.
Michael Smythe, an artist who works on social architecture and urban landscapes and was part of the study team, said: “For people like us who work with public space, validating the anecdotal knowledge we get on the ground with data is incredibly valuable in communicating the worth of these spaces. Environmental health and public health are one and the same.”
The research, published in the Scientific Reports journal, collected data from urban citizens across the world using the Urban Mind research app. People were prompted at three random times a day for a fortnight, during waking hours, to answer simple questions on loneliness, overcrowding, social inclusion and contact with nature.
More than 750 people provided 16,600 of these assessments, which included the questions “do you feel welcome among [the people around you]?” and “can you see trees right now?”.
The participants were self-selecting and so did not provide a representative sample of the wider populations. But when the researchers took age, ethnicity, education, and occupation into account, the benefits of nature contact and feelings of social inclusion on loneliness remained strongly statistically significant.
Christopher Gidlow, a professor of applied health research at Staffordshire University in the UK, who was not involved in the research, said: “It has long been recognised that having access to natural environments can foster social interactions and connectedness. This study adds further weight to existing evidence of our affinity for natural environments and the potential benefits for social wellbeing.
“Familiarity with environments was not measured, but is likely to be at play as people tend to visit the same natural environments. Such familiarity has been linked with feeling more connected to a place, with possible mental health benefits.”
Johanna Gibbons, a landscape architect and part of the research team, said: “Cities are probably the only habitat that is increasing at a high rate. So we should be creating urban habitats where people can thrive. Nature is a critical component of that because, I believe deep in our souls, there are really deep connections with natural forces.”