What Do Blue and Green Space Mean for Mental Health?

Is living next to a park a recipe for happiness? Intuitively, it makes sense that easier access to nature could improve mental health.

To some extent, the scientific findings are in line with the idea that being near green space (nature) and blue space (water) can mean a boost in mental health. But the debate isn’t resolved. For example, a 2015 review of published studies found that there was some evidence that access to green space in particular was good for mental health, but that the results were still inconclusive.

Recently, a team of researchers in Bulgaria, Germany and Sweden, decided to approach the issue by asking a different question: why exactly does living near green space and blue space potentially influence mental health?

They addressed this question by surveying 720 students in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. They looked at the young adults’ mental health, proximity to green and blue space, and possible underlying reasons for any link between access to nature and mental health.

It turned out that living near green and blue space affected the students’ mental health in several different ways.

One important way was that when people recognized their environment as having more green and blue space, they tended to see that environment as more restorative. Seeing their environment as restorative, in turn, made them more likely to engage in more physical activity.

In the case of green space, another factor was noise exposure. People living near more green space were exposed to less noise, and they in turn tended to experience lower levels of annoyance in their daily lives.

Interestingly, noise exposure also played a role in how blue space impacted people’s health, but in the opposite direction. That is, levels of noise exposure were higher near blue space, which caused people more annoyance, ultimately to the detriment of their mental health.

The bird’s-eye view is that, at least for residents of Plovdiv, green space boosts mental health because it encourages physical activity and lowers noise exposure. Blue space, on the other hand, isn’t clearly good or bad for mental health: it encourages exercise, but it also leads to higher noise exposure.

The relationship between access to nature and happiness may be more nuanced, then. Depending on the specifics of the situation, living near green space or blue space can likely have both good and bad psychological implications, which partly explains why studies on this topic have been inconclusive.

Image: Flickr/diamond geezer