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Exposure to trees, the sky and birdsong in cities beneficial for mental wellbeing

Most people have had direct experience of how access to nature can reduce stress levels and have a beneficial effect on mood. Yet, until now, there has been surprisingly scarce high-quality scientific evidence to support the beneficial effects of nature on mental wellbeing.

We hope this line of research will lead to the development of low-cost scalable interventions aimed at promoting mental health in urban populations– Dr Andrea Mechelli, Department of Psychosis Studies

Researchers at King’s, landscape architects J & L Gibbons and art foundation Nomad Projects have used smartphone-based technology to assess the relationship between nature in cities and momentary mental wellbeing in real time.

They found that (i) being outdoors, seeing trees, hearing birdsong, seeing the sky, and feeling in contact with nature were associated with higher levels of mental wellbeing, and that (ii) the beneficial effects of nature were especially evident in those individuals with greater levels of impulsivity who are at greater risk of mental health issues.

Dr Andrea Mechelli from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, Department of Psychosis Studies, said: ‘These findings suggest that short-term exposure to nature has a measurable beneficial impact on mental wellbeing. The interaction of this effect with trait impulsivity is intriguing, as it suggests that nature could be especially beneficial to those individuals who are at risk of poor mental health.

‘From a clinical perspective, we hope this line of research will lead to the development of low-cost scalable interventions aimed at promoting mental health in urban populations.’

The team developed a smartphone-based app, Urban Mind, to examine how exposure to natural features in cities affects a person’s mental wellbeing. By collecting real-time data, the researchers are able to understand how different aspects of the urban environment affect mental wellbeing.

It is hoped that the results will inform future urban planning and social policy aimed at improving design & health. With more than 3.5 billion people, over half the world’s population, living in urban areas this is vital.

Lucia Robertson, a participant on the project, said, ‘Using the Urban Mind app made me more aware of my surroundings and how these affect my state of mind. It encouraged me to think hard about what kind of city I want to live in’.

The researchers will be launching an updated version of the Urban Mind app in March 2018. This new version will be translated in multiple languages, and used for a large-scale international study in healthy participants and clinical populations.