Urban Dwellers Happier in Cities with Trees and Green Space

By Matthew White, Ian Alcock, Benedict Wheeler, and Michael Depledge of the University of Exeter.

Washington, DC (April 22, 2013) — New research finds that people who live in urban areas with more green space tend to report greater well-being than city dwellers who don’t have parks, trees, or other green space nearby. Survey respondents reported less mental distress and higher life satisfaction when they were living in greener areas, even accounting for changes in participants’ income, employment, marital status, physical health, and housing.

City park and green spaceThe new research, published in Psychological Science, examines data from a national longitudinal survey of households in the United Kingdom conducted at the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter Medical School.

According to the research, “Living in an urban area with relatively high levels of green space compared to one with relatively low levels of green space was associated with a positive impact on well-being equivalent to roughly a third of the impact of being married vs. unmarried and a tenth of the impact of being employed vs. unemployed.”

Researchers found that individuals reported less mental distress and higher life satisfaction when they were living in greener areas. And this association held even after the researchers accounted for changes in participants’ income, employment, marital status, physical health, and housing.

  • As green space increased within a 2.5-mile radius of where they lived, overall well-being increased proportionally. Specifically, life satisfaction increased by 2% and psychological distress decreased by 4%.
  • In relative terms, living in a greener area was associated with mental health gains about 35% as significant as those one gets from being married. It was 12% as beneficial to mental health as employed.
  • In terms of “life satisfaction,” the effect was equal to 28% that of being married and 21% that of being employed.

“These kinds of comparisons are important for policymakers when trying to decide how to invest scarce public resources, e.g. for park development or upkeep, and figuring out what ‘bang’ they’ll get for their buck,” says lead researcher Matthew White.

Findings from previous research suggested a correlation between green space and well-being, but those studies weren’t able to rule out the possibility that people with higher levels of well-being simply move to greener areas. White and colleagues were able to solve that problem by using longitudinal data from the national survey; that data were collected annually from over 10,000 people between 1991 and 2008.

The new research does not prove that moving to a greener area will necessarily cause increased happiness, but it does fit with findings from experimental studies showing that short bouts of time in a green space can improve people’s mood and cognitive functioning.

Researcher Matthew White describes the research in a video from the European Centre for Environment & Human Health. The research was supported by the European Regional Developmental Fund and the European Social Fund Convergence Programme for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

Sources: Association for Psychological Science News Release: “Green Spaces May Boost Well-Being for City Slickers”; Lindsay Abrams, ” Study: Green Space Means More for Satisfaction than a Neighborhoods Average Income,” The Atlantic (April 22, 2013)

Related Resources
Would You Be Happier Living in a Greener Urban Area? A Fixed-Effects Analysis of Panel Data
Scientific Proof that Trees Make us Happier
Would You Be Happier Living in a Greener Urban Area?