According to the United Nations, 54% of the world’s population lives in urban settings. Urbanization is expected to increase, especially in Asia and Africa. Consider the following statistics:
- In 2014, there were 28 mega-cities (population > 10 million)
- By 2040, there will be 41 mega-cities
- Tokyo, Japan is the world’s largest city with 38 million residents
- Delhi, India is the second largest city with 25 million residents 1)http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/world-urbanization-prospects-2014.html
Have you heard of the biophilia hypothesis?
First coined by the social philosopher and psychologist Dr. Erich Fromm in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, biophilia is described as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive; it is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group.”2)https://books.google.com/books?id=vZ2Ja6D9cxcC&pg=PT665&lpg=PT665&dq=Anatomy+of+Human+Destructiveness+biophilia&source=bl&ots=ii5m_VG6B7&sig=LYAnBnqxwSWK-WssskTB_7Ndado&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj2-I3Ml8nZAhUGHqwKHZAWClYQ6AEIbDAJ#v=onepage&q=Anatomy%20of%20Human%20Destructiveness%20biophilia&f=true 11 years later, the biologist Edward O. Wilson published Biophilia. He dubbed the term “love of life” linking it to our natural, genetic predisposition to feel connected with nature.
Study: Green Neighborhoods Affect Urban Kids’ Brain Development and Cognitive Function
A peer-reviewed study conducted in Barcelona, Spain has found not only does our love of life involve a connection to nature but it actually aids in brain development and cognitive function. The objective of the study was to find out if “lifelong exposure to residential surrounding greenness is associated with regional differences in brain volume.”
Researchers studied 2D MRI scans of primary children. They used high-resolution satellite imagery to identify green areas near children’s homes. The results were amazing!
RESULTS: Lifelong exposure to greenness was positively associated with gray matter volume in the left and right prefrontal cortex and in the left premotor cortex and with white matter volume in the right prefrontal region, in the left premotor region, and in both cerebellar hemispheres. Some of these regions partly overlapped with regions associated with cognitive test scores (prefrontal cortex and cerebellar and premotor white matter), and peak volumes in these regions predicted better working memory and reduced inattentiveness.
CONCLUSION: Our findings from a study population of urban schoolchildren in Barcelona require confirmation, but they suggest that being raised in greener neighborhoods may have beneficial effects on brain development and cognitive function.3)https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/ehp1876/
Previous studies have found similar conclusions on the importance of green spaces. Particularly working memory and attention difficulties are positively affected.
- In a recent longitudinal study of >2,200 Barcelona schoolchildren (7–9 y old) (Dadvand et al. 2015a), we found that over a 12-month period, children who attended schools with higher outdoor greenness had a greater increase in working memory and a greater reduction in inattentiveness than children who attended schools with less surrounding greenness.4)http://www.pnas.org/content/112/26/7937
- The brain develops steadily during prenatal and early postnatal periods, which are considered the most vulnerable windows for effects of environmental exposures (Grandjean and Landrigan 2014). In this context, exposure to greenness early in life could be associated with beneficial structural changes in the developing brain.5)http://www.thelancet.com/journals/laneur/article/PIIS1474-4422(13)70278-3/abstract
- Attention restoration theory (ART) provides an analysis of the kinds of environments that lead to improvements in directed-attention abilities. Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish. Unlike natural environments, urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative. We present two experiments that show that walking in nature or viewing pictures of nature can improve directed-attention abilities…6)http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02225.x
- This study investigated the association between the “greenness” of the area surrounding a Massachusetts public elementary school and the academic achievement of the school’s student body based on standardized tests with an ecological setting. Researchers used the composite school-based performance scores generated by the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) to measure the percentage of 3rd-grade students (the first year of standardized testing for 8-9 years-old children in public school), who scored “Above Proficient” (AP) in English and Mathematics tests…Overall the study results supported a relationship between the “greenness” of the school area and the school-wide academic performance. Interestingly, the results showed a consistently positive significant association between the greenness of the school in the Spring (when most Massachusetts students take the MCAS tests) and school-wide performance on both English and Math tests, even after adjustment for socio-economic factors and urban residency.7)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25310542?access_num=25310542&link_type=MED&dopt=Abstract
Green spaces are less toxic, less stimulating, less noisy, and there is less air pollution. All of these factors promote brain development and cognitive function. Whether children grow up near parks or schools with green spaces, the results are conclusive supporting the biophilia hypothesis.
Biophilia and Parenting
E. O. Wilson stated that one of the worse impediments to children’s natural connection with nature is parental suppression of biophilia. He stated:
Soccer moms are the enemy of natural history and the full development of a child.8)http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/conversation-eo-wilson.html
He continues by comparing urban children lacking in green exposure and experiences to those of cows brought up in a feedlot.
The dire comparison I make is between children brought up in a totally humanized, artifactual environment, urban or suburban, and cattle brought up in a feedlot. When you see cattle in a feedlot, they seem perfectly content, but they’re not cattle. It’s an exaggeration, of course, to compare those with children, but somehow children can be perfectly happy with computer screens and games and movies where they get to see not only African wildlife but, lo and behold, dinosaurs. But they’re just not fully developing their psychic energy and their propensities to develop and seek on their own.9)http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/conversation-eo-wilson.html
Urban Planners Must Consider Green Spaces
As cities grow, pressure on green spaces mounts as room for housing increases; however, researchers have found urban parks and gardens are important for our health. According to the World Health Organization:
- Green urban areas facilitate physical activity and relaxation, and form a refuge from noise.
- Trees produce oxygen, and help filter out harmful air pollution, including airborne particulate matter.
- Urban parks and gardens play a critical role in cooling cities, and also provide safe routes for walking and cycling for transport purposes as well as sites for physical activity, social interaction and for recreation.
- Recent estimates show that physical inactivity, linked to poor walkability and lack of access to recreational areas, accounts for 3.3% of global deaths.
- Having access to green spaces can reduce health inequalities, improve well-being, and aid in treatment of mental illness.10)http://www.who.int/sustainable-development/cities/health-risks/urban-green-space/en/
10 World Cities with the Most Green Spaces
According to the World Cities Culture Forum, the following cities have the highest percent of of public parks and gardens within their limits.
- Moscow, Russia 54%
- Singapore, Singapore 47%
- Sydney, Australia 46%
- Vienna, Austria 45.5%
- Shenzhen, China 45%
- Hong Kong 40%
- Stockholm, Sweden 40%
- Madrid, Spain 35%
- Rome, Italy 34.8%
- London, England 33%11)http://www.worldcitiescultureforum.com/data/of-public-green-space-parks-and-gardens
We can encourage our children’s schools to create more green spaces on campus. We can encourage city councils and urban planners to maintain parks and create new ones in vacant lots. We can choose neighborhoods that offer more opportunities to interact with nature. We can fill our balconies, yards, patios, and whatever outdoor space is available to us with plants. We can help our children improve their cognitive functioning with nature.
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