So this article popped up in my newsfeed and it blew me away:
In what is perhaps the first scientific study of the effects of public spaces on mental health, a non-profit group in Philadelphia cleaned up trash-filled vacant lots and “greened up” others, primarily in low-income areas, and found that residents reported feeling happier.
The results of the study?
They found that residents of areas that had either the greening or trash removal projects reported a decrease in feelings of depression by about 40 percent. In neighborhoods below the poverty line, the drop was 70 percent. Researchers also found reductions in feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and overall poor mental health.
That being said, the outcomes of this study are very much inline with a perspective I developed after reading Lost Connections by Johanna Hari. I wrote about my feelings on the book here, and while I did have some major concerns with portions of the book, it really opened my eyes to an often unexplored dimension of depression: The social and community one. If everything around us is falling apart, too stressful, too ugly (and I mean that in more ways than one), we’ll be depressed. This study would seem to be a validation of Hari’s theory.
This isn’t the first study which would seem to tie physical environment – and access to a good, healthy, clean environment – to depression. A 2018 study showed that levels of depression for residents at British care homes could be predicted based on whether or not they had easy access to the outdoors, and there is also ample evidence which shows a connection between a physical environment and mental illness.
In a sense, this is an extension of the famed Broken Window theory of urban planning. That theory, in essence, is this: Small neglect (like an unrepaired broken window) leads to larger and larger crimes. The reverse can also be true: Cleaning one section of a neighborhood can lead to the cleaning of others.
My conclusion here is not one that I haven’t said before: More research is needed. But this study is a powerful incentive which captures yet another positive benefit of neighborhood revitalization – it may ease the symptoms of depression.