Greenspaces should promote the mental health of young adults

Although many global cities are incorporating green spaces such as pocket parks and community gardens into their urban planning, new UBC research shows that these plans often do not include the needs of youth and young adults aged 15 to 24. As a result, this age group may miss out on the known social, physical and mental benefits of these nature-based solutions.

UBC Faculty of Forestry Researchers Dr. Sara Barron (he and she) and Dr. Emily J. Rugel (he and she) analyzed data collected during park visits in two cities in Australia and reviewed evidence from the past few decades to develop a new green space assessment tool for young adults.

We talked to them about their work.

Why are green spaces important?

Dr. Sara Barron

SB: Public urban green spaces keep our cities cool, reduce stress and improve mood. They encourage activities such as physical exercise and social interaction. These benefits are important for everyone, but especially for young adults, because it is at this time of life that many chronic mental disorders emerge.

Exposure to the right kind of greenery can foster strong social bonds and connections with nature during these critical years. Unfortunately, nature and health research, as well as urbanism, tends to ignore this important demographic.

Are there well-designed green spaces in the Lower Mainland?

SB: Absolutely. For example, we’re really good at providing playgrounds for younger kids or including things like park benches for older adults. But when it comes to youth and young adults, there is a noticeable lack of intentionally designed spaces where they can just be themselves.

There are a few places that meet this criteria to some degree, such as the Spanish Banks, where the logs on the beach provide a measure of privacy for solo park visitors and groups alike. Stanley Park offers an incredible amount of biodiversity. However, there is a clear need to purposefully design our public green spaces to be more attractive to youth and young adults, especially in light of emerging research that suggests young people have experienced poorer mental health as a result of the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. .

Dr.  Emily Rugel

Dr. Emily Rugel

Your work calls for planners to design green spaces that are “tolerant green spaces”. What exactly does that term mean?

YIPPEE: Tolerant green spaces are places that support young adults’ needs for both social interaction and psychological renewal. They provide order – they are natural but also well cared for and safe. They show diversity, both in plant life and in the activities they enable. They finally give young people a place to seek solace in quiet solitude or spend time with their friends without adult supervision.

We tested this concept on a number of green spaces in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s two largest cities. Pathways with vegetation neatly spaced on both sides are good for creating a sense of order, for example. Formal parks planted with more than three species of trees or offering facilities for at least three recreational activities provide variety. Even pocket parks that use terracing or shrubbery to create distinct areas encourage seclusion and retreat.

How should Canadian planners and politicians begin to design green spaces for all ages?

YIPPEE: In our paper, we propose a framework for evaluating the extent to which green spaces are tolerant. Planners and even young scientists can use this tool to assess the spaces that currently exist and plan for future spaces.

Some cities may have problems incorporating greenery into densification areas. The good news is that you don’t necessarily need enough space for tolerant designs. Even small lots can be transformed into green spaces that meet the needs of youth and young adults.

Interview language: English (Barron, Rugel)

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