Active, connected communities that are truly well have more than just bike lanes. From the perspective of well-being, action is more than physical exercise and connected means more than getting from point A to point B. One of the key elements of well-being theory is that helping communities connect to a sense of purpose and then take action for change has the power to improve health. And increasing amounts of evidence bear this out.
Take the example of greening projects, where communities come together to clean up a shared outdoor space like a vacant lot or a run down park. We have written previously about research that suggests that interaction with green spaces can actually reduce stress and lower heart rate and blood pressure. Now new research suggests that “greening interventions” may be more effective at improving well-being than interventions merely designed to clean up the environment.
The study, measured overall mental health in 442 adults living in a neighborhood in Philadelphia with 110 vacant lots. Over the course of three years, individuals were assigned to three groups: a group that participated in both cleaning and “greening” lots, a group that participated in trash clean up only and and a control (no intervention) group. The greening intervention included litter pick-up, planting grass and trees, and adding fencing. Compared to the trash-only and control groups, the greening group had significantly lower feeling of depression and improved overall mental health. And the greening work was pretty inexpensive compared to other major public works, just $1597 per lot and $180 per year in maintenance.
From a practical standpoint, if we hope to create a truly well, active and equitable community, we will have to give our attention to how our outdoor spaces look and function. From our cars, it’s easy to zoom by vacant lots or a congested suburban strip mall. At the slower pace of walking or biking it’s easier to see the litter or smell the exhaust fumes that send a message that these spaces are not healthy for humans. In addition, it’s essential to acknowledge that vacant lots and bike/ped-unfriendly streetscapes are more prevalent in lower income neighborhoods, making it less inviting for those residents to spend time walking and biking and that this, in turn, can negatively impact their mental health and well-being.
Greening and cleaning are inexpensive tools we can use to improve the ways our community lives, works and plays together. Let’s add them to our toolbox!