March in New England feels closer to Winter than Spring, the chill and damp hanging in the air, with the threat of a snowstorm still looming, always potentially just a forecast away. But even now, before Spring has sprung in Boston's Public Garden, the urban oasis is still full of people.
"It's what we were programmed to live in", says Lucian Stern. He calls the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston home, and believes a world full of concrete right angles is not the necessarily the best environment for human beings. Stern says he comes to the park because "it's enough of a dose of our roots that it has immeasurable beneficial qualities".
| No matter the season, the Public Garden is one of Boston's most popular spots.
Maria Chzhen, visiting Boston from Russia, agrees. Taking out her camera to snap a few shots of the melting snow revealing Mother Nature's beauty hiding beneath, she says "I think it's very quiet here, and it kind of helps to refocus". Hard to believe it's smack dab in the middle of a city of nearly 700,000 people.
Turns out, their experience is not unique
The study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research, focused on visitors to three urban parks in Mountain Brook, Birmingham, Alabama. They used surveys from 94 participants, reporting their subjective well-being as they entered the park, and then again as they left. Researchers also monitored the participant's level of physical activity through an accelerometer during their park visit.
They say the results show a 64% improvement in life satisfaction after just a 20.5 minute visit to the park. A big increase for a relatively short amount of time, but researchers say the longer the person spent in the park, the greater their increase in subjective well-being. And that increase came regardless of whether they had used that time to exercise, or not.
“Overall, we found park visitors reported an improvement in emotional well-being after the park visit,” said the study's lead author Hon K. Yuen, Ph.D. In a press release through the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the professor adds: "we did not find levels of physical activity are related to improved emotional well-being. Instead, we found time spent in the park is related to improved emotional well-being.”
They suggest urban planners working to design parks should make sure visitors are motivated to spend more time per park visit, to enhance the well-being benefits. That could mean a focus on trees, grass, walkways, and rest areas to help satisfy a broad range of visitors.
The study's co-author, Gavin R. Jenkins, Ph.D., says the research shines a spotlight on the importance of urban parks. “There is increasing pressure on green space within urban settings,” he writes. “Planners and developers look to replace green space with residential and commercial property. The challenge facing cities is that there is an increasing evidence about the value of city parks but we continue to see the demise of theses spaces.”
Researchers say more studies could be used to explore whether the short-term direct exposure to urban parks could eventually result in longer term health benefits, if park goers visited on a regular basis. In the meantime, they're encouraging cities to add more green spaces, designers to create parks that draw in people, and people to take advantage of any piece of nature around them. After all, it appears both the value of their neighborhood, and the benefit of their own well-being may depend upon it.
Kim Lucey is a freelance journalist with more than a decade of experience in the field. Her career has included coverage of big breaking news events like the Sandy Hook school shooting, lockdown in Watertown, MA following the Boston marathon bombings, and Superstorm Sandy. Her in-depth reports have garnered awards, including a focus on treating mental health issues in children. Currently, she is a reporter at a television station covering the news across the Greater Boston Area with an appreciation for fact-finding and storytelling. Follow Kim on Facebook and Twitter.