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According to new research out of the UK, moving into a home near green spaces, particularly in urban areas, provides people with long-term mental health gains up to three years after the move. Scientists at the University of Essex, who tracked 1,000 people over five years, found that moving next to a green space had a “sustained positive effect, unlike pay rises or promotions, which only provided a short-term boost,” writes BBC News. In the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the researchers argue that the research shows “access to good quality urban parks is beneficial to public health.”

Co-author Mathew White, from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter, UK, said his study built on an earlier one that showed people living in “greener urban areas displayed fewer signs of depression or anxiety.” His team tried to find out whether nature really was having an impact, or there was some other unknown variable at work.

As White explained to BBC News, “there could have been a number of reasons, for example, people do all sorts of things to make them happier: they strive for promotion at work, pay rises, they even get married. But the trouble with all those things is that within six months to a year, they are back to their original baseline levels of well-being. So these things are not sustainable; they do not make us happy in the long-term. We found that within a group of lottery winners who had won more than £500,000 that the positive effect was definitely there but after six months to a year, they were back to the baseline.”

Using data from the British Household Panel Survey, which has collected information about 40,000 households each year since the early 90s, the team found that “even after three years, mental health is still better, which is unlike many of the other things that we think will make us happy.” He added that “there is evidence that people within an area with green spaces are less stressed and when you are less stressed you make more sensible decisions and you communicate better.”

In The Mail, another co-author, Dr. Ian Alcock, also at the University of Exeter, said: “these findings are important for urban planners thinking about introducing new green spaces to our towns and cities, suggesting they could provide long term and sustained benefits for local communities.”

While the health benefits of adding more green spaces are now apparent, there would also be economic benefits. In 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) said depression was the leading cause of disability worldwide. Disabled workers are expensive for both governments and employers. Imagine if disability due to depression could be reduced simply through the addition of parks.

White said more policymakers, at least in the UK, are taking this type of research seriously, but these studies may raise sticky financing questions. “For example, environmental officials will say that if it is good for people’s health then surely shouldn’t the health service be putting some money in. …What we really need at a policy level is to decide where the money is going to come from to help support good quality local green spaces.”

Read the article, see more recent research on health and nature, and check out ASLA’s comprehensive guide to the health benefits of nature.

Image credit: Kevin W. Fitzgerald Park, Mission Hill, Boston / Studio 2112 Landscape Architecture