There is an growing body of scholarship that supports the cultivation of green spaces in urban environments as a vital part of healthcare and wellbeing provision in cities and communities (Pearson and Craig 2014; Wyles et al. 2017). According to the constitution of the World Health Organisation health is ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. In other words, it includes both physical and psychological wellbeing. Good health then is not only the improvement of symptoms associated with chronic illness, but must also include the presence of positive emotions like life satisfaction, a sense of community and happiness (Soga, Gaston, and Yamaura 2017).
We have long known that urban parks provide sites for physical activity and that exercise reduces the prevalence of most chronic diseases and enhances healthiness in general. More recent evidence, however, has demonstrated the manifold positive associations between access to green spaces like forests, cemeteries, reserves, sports fields, conservation areas, and community gardens – and better health outcomes (Newell et al. 2013). For example, psychological wellbeing has been empirically linked to contact with green areas (Berto 2014; Bertram and Rehdanz 2015). And according to research in environmental psychology simply being in a ‘natural’ environment can help promote recovery from stress. Parks are said to provide a sense of peace and tranquillity and they can function as a locus of social interaction and play – both associated with positive health indicators. Evidence also suggests that green spaces increase perceptions of safety and belonging. And Fuller et al. (2009) have found positive associations between species richness and self-reported psychological contentment. Louv (2005) has shown that children who lack access to urban green space can suffer from a wide range of behavioural problems; and that interaction with flora and fauna is crucial to child development. Gardens in care homes have been found to be beneficial for reducing the agitation and aggression linked to dementia, while hospices make use of the tranquillity of green spaces as part of end-of-life care (Triggle 2016).
What’s more, green spaces also support the ecological integrity of cities which is turn have health benefits for the people living and working in them. For instance, trees and plants help to filter air and remove pollution. In 2019 the World Health Organisation found that around seven million people die each year from exposure to polluted air. Vegetation also helps to attenuate noise pollution – another source of stress reported to be increasing in urban environments. And urban forests can moderate temperatures by providing shade and cooling and thus helping reduce the risk of heat-related illnesses for city dwellers (Wolch, Byrne, and Newell 2014).
But it isn’t simply being present in green spaces that can aid better health. Producing and cultivating them is also increasingly being recognised as a crucial part of the story. Gardening has been linked to lower BMIs, reduced stress, fatigue and depression, better cognitive function, and also to the prevention or management of diabetes, circulatory problems and heart disease (Buck 2016; Soga et al. 2017; Thompson 2018; Van-Den-Berg and Custers 2011).
Speaking personally, I can attest that gardens and gardening undeniably provides a sense of solace. I have always enjoyed being outdoors and walking in beautiful settings but only very recently have I taken up gardening. Much of the academic literature on horticulture and cultivating green space simply asserts an empirical relationship between the act of gardening and its corollary beneficial outcomes. But very little research explores or explains precisely what the mechanisms of association might be. Below I want to examine some of the processes that connect the act of growing green things with the benefits that are ascribed to its practice.
Gardening – the cultivation of and care for plants and vegetables for non-commercial purposes – provides a different way to experience the natural environment: it is far more immersive and visceral than simply being present in a green space. What’s more, gardening is a process and never complete; it is an act of care and it is often hard work. However, I believe its rewards are many.
I felt tired simply looking at our own overgrown ‘cottage garden’ – at least that’s how it was described by the last estate agent. Shrubs and weeds had proliferated during years of benign neglect leaving only a slim pathway to the bicycle shed. Rather than a pleasant space to enjoy, it had been a reminder of another chore yet to address.
All this changed a few years ago and I began to tackle the tangle of vegetation. I hacked back gargantuan shrubs and removed well-established bramble and after a couple of days the hard labour was complete; I could then work on cultivating something resembling a garden in this newly revealed plot. Admiring the freshly made beds of soil I set about planting and digging. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was keen.
It’s become a cliché that gardening is therapeutic, but at that time I hadn’t appreciated just how helpful it could be. Gardening obviously involves effort and according to the Mental Health Foundation, exercise is not only beneficial for physical health it also helps psychological conditions like mild to moderate depression and stress (Buck 2016). There’s also something about its practice which I believe is salutary. At least it is in my own experience.
Digging and manipulating soil to plant bulbs and seeds is a hopeful act. That in itself is heartening, but when the first green shoots push through the earth it can be exhilarating too. It is an act of human agency to dig, plant and to nurture and yet one’s gardening success lies far beyond the control of the gardener herself, notwithstanding her commitment and expertise.
So much can go wrong: blight, poor weather, ravenous slugs – and a hundred other circumstances can conspire to thwart the gardener’s efforts. While plans may go awry, the co-production between gardener and the non-human garden assemblage can produce glorious outcomes. I have felt at once proud of the spring displays that have emerged in my tiny plot, and also humbled; knowing that the results were only partially of my own doing.
One can read-up and share tips with other enthusiasts but sometimes it just doesn’t work out as planned. I was disappointed that my tulip bulbs didn’t materialise into the plants promised on the packet, but I’ve been pleased that the ailing roses I got on discount at the garden centre have thrived. Gardening knowhow is often more tacit than taught. It is acquired through seasons of practice, of hope and sometimes of frustration. Feeling stressed by the demands of everyday life can make us feel impotent so it’s perplexing that gardening, in which we have only a relative influence on the outcome, can be so satisfying. Or maybe that’s its appeal.
Perhaps it is the combination of endorphin-releasing exercise, surrendering control to serendipity and the slow tacit acquisition of practical know-how that makes gardening special. But there’s something about the rhythms, textures, sounds and scents of gardening too. The immersive and visceral experience of working with plants and mud encourages us to be mindful and present in our own bodies. Instead of worrying about work or the everyday stresses of life, gardening directs us to the tasks at hand: to pruning, repotting, weeding or digging. Anxiety can worsen when we focus unduly on the past or worry excessively about the future, whereas gardening is an activity engaged in the ‘now’. And since most plants and shrubs only flower for a short period, to enjoy them at their best we must be fully present.
And of course, gardens are sensual and sensory. Their beauty can’t be captured in a text or by a photograph they must be experienced. The feel of earth warmed by microbes and sunshine, delicate and textured vegetation that brushes the skin, foliage with thorns or stings, inhaling the musty smell of air in soil displaced by rain, or the aromatic scent of leaves and petals, the sound of breeze hissing through leaves. It is these incursions on our senses that can help relieve us of our existential angst and provide succour in difficult times.
In Britain, Hospital Foundations, mental health, homeless and dementia charities are beginning to offer not only access to green spaces as part of their efforts to improve the health of citizens, but also opportunities for publics to get involved in their cultivation. This seems like a very positive move in the endeavour for healthier cities (Soga et al. 2017). However, there are some caveats. Some studies on green spaces and health reveal that access disproportionately benefits White, able bodied and more affluent communities (McConnachie and Shackleton 2010; Wolch et al. 2014). And enhancing natural amenities in cities has been shown to in many cities to paradoxically facilitate gentrification and increase property prices, further diminishing access to those constituents who might benefit the most (Newell et al. 2013). Concerted effort needs to be made by urban planners and communities everywhere to keep this most valuable resource accessible and open to all for the good of healthy citizens everywhere.
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Bertram, Christine and Katrin Rehdanz. 2015. “The Role of Urban Green Space for Human Well-Being.” Ecological Economics 120:139–52.
Buck, D. 2016. Gardens and Health Implications for Policy and Practice. Kings Fund.
Fuller, Richard and Gaston Kevin. 2009. “The Scaling of Green Space Coverage in European Cities.” Biology Letters 5(3):352–55.
Louv, Richard. 2005. “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” SCHOLE: A Journal of Leisure Studies and Recreation Education 21(1):136–37.
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Wyles, Kayleigh J., Mathew P. White, Caroline Hattam, Sabine Pahl, Haney King, and Melanie Austen. 2017. “Are Some Natural Environments More Psychologically Beneficial Than Others? The Importance of Type and Quality on Connectedness to Nature and Psychological Restoration.” Environment and Behavior 51(2):111–43.