The worrying taste of inner city stress

I’ve been fortunate most of my life to have access to a garden or a nearby park, for sunny hours of reading, or time to simply sit, contemplate and de-stress. These natural environments are ideal for recuperation from fatigue and stress because they hold our attention with little effort – what’s called ‘soft fascination’ (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989).

But how is it for the countless millions of people who live in areas with limited or no immediate means of accessing similar green space in their neighbourhood? What, if any, is the effect?

This week a major new study which I co-authored, has just been published. Its initial findings are a far reaching and an important indicator on the value of green space to stress in areas of urban deprivation.

Our teams – led by OPENspace, the Universities of Edinburgh and Heriot Watt, together with the Universities of Glasgow and Westminster, the James Hutton Institute and Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland – measured the concentrations of cortisol – the stress hormone – found in human saliva, in unemployed adults (or not in work for some other reason), aged between 35 – 55 and living in socially disadvantaged inner city areas.

Cortisol acts as a stress biomarker but has rarely been applied before as a method to explore how the different attributes of our built environment act as stressors or de-stressors to inner city living.

Our data – scientifically measured and statistically controlled for other stressors such as income deprivation – illustrates that green space can help buffer stress for those living with poverty in inner cities. The effect appears to be stronger for women – whom showed patterns of stress ‘burnout’ in the areas of our study with the lowest levels of green space – compared to those living with higher levels of green space, whom showed much healthier patterns of stress regulation.

We are not suggesting green space can solve the problems of major life stressors – divorce, bereavement, redundancy – but – at a time when our own – and international – health and welfare services are evaluating new approaches to the wellbeing of our burgeoning populations, I believe our study is an important indication of the positive emotional impact of providing access to green space.

The taste of happiness and wellbeing may now be a palpable first step in the aid to recovering the unnecessary and unwelcome costly stress health implications in the poorer members of our community.