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The importance of green spaces – and blue spaces – for our mental health has become ever more pronounced in the last few years. As a Finn, often the first thing I notice in a new country is the lack of vast, green forests and waterways. I was been lucky to grow up surrounded by the best of nature, and having now lived in Glasgow for the last nine years, my home country Finland occasionally feels like a utopian bliss with its clean air, greenness, and water. In the following piece, I am reflecting on some of my personal observations of green spaces, but also tying in recent research that has backed up the holistic importance green and blue spaces have in our lives.
Green spaces, especially in urban environments, are on the decline globally. Reports estimate that green spaces have declined by about a tenth in recent years and with the decline being more prominent in urban areas. In the UK, the pandemic definitely highlighted the importance of green spaces. People ventured out to explore the nearby parks they had never been to before, seeking refuge from the four walls they were confined to for the rest of the day. It was quickly obvious, that the negative health implications of locking people indoors would surpass the risk of them being close to each other and getting Covid outdoors.
Being cooped up indoors brings me to the research on the positive impact that green spaces can have on mental health. Mental health affects people across the socio-economic spectrum, but there is evidence that those from lower income are harder hit than others. A Finnish study published earlier this year found that the positive association between green space exposure and lower use of psychotropic medications (used to treat mental health illnesses) was stronger among individuals with lower income. This suggests that green spaces may have greater health benefits for individuals facing socioeconomic challenges, highlighting the potential importance of equitable access to nature for promoting health and well-being. Similarly, a 2019 study surveying adults in the UK concluded that conclusion the relationship between green space exposure and antidepressant medication use was stronger for individuals with lower income or education levels.
So could we fix the mental health crisis with more green space? In the ideal world, yes. The UK has one of the lowest levels of green space per capita (2.7 hectares) whereas Finland has the highest at 30 hectares per capita. But does this automatically mean, then, that Finland has lower levels of depression because it has one of the largest amounts of green space? Well, not exactly. Even though Finland tops the annual happiest country in the World list year after year, its people still suffer from mental health illnesses in large numbers, with an estimated fourth of Finns suffering from poor mental health.
Even if it is not visibly correlating to the mental health stats, what Finland is doing differently, from my own experience, is having green spaces available all year round and without complicating access rights. The parks have sufficient lighting so you can cross them or exercise in them even after sunset (which is very early in the winter). The paths are gritted when they get icy, and public park tracks are either cleared from snow or the gravel evened out depending on the season.
The space is shared and people follow rules – for example, dogs are required to be on a lead at all times in public spaces, but this means the space should be comfortable for everyone to use. I have had my share of low moments, and even after years, I remember how much better it made me feel to have a walk in a forest in the evening when everything seemed hopeless. A walk in the nearby pitch-dark Glasgow park doesn’t quite have the same effect, although it does get my mind off certain worries by replacing them with others.
Accessibility of green spaces is not only dependent on how well they are maintained – which is again, an aspect that is reportedly on the decline across the world – but also on how easy they are to access for a broad range of people. A sufficient amount of benches ensures those who need more rest have an opportunity to do so, and even pathways allow people with limited mobility to get around easily.
Despite urban Glasgow not having vast amounts of forest, Scotland has felt a lot more like being at home for me. It’s another story altogether when I venture across the border to the south: I often get a little overwhelmed about which path I am allowed to, for example, cycle, and how I am meant to know what land is private. And don’t even get me started on the baffling nature of private residential parks with locked gates that I only saw for the first time when I came to the UK. Of course, Finland has them as well, but they are countryside private parks at larger houses.
In the more rural environment, rights such as Scotland’s Land Reform Act 2003, which gives people the right to access land and water across the country, increase the ease of getting into nature. This act is very similar to the “everyman’s right” of Finland. For the rest of the UK, the access is getting ever more restricted, as the last legal wild camping area of Dartmoor is currently pondering a total ban on overnight stays on the moors.
I am not trying to say here that Finland is great and the UK sucks, but just highlight some of the green space differences that I have encountered. Green space has always been very important to me, and when I am not close to any, I feel like I’ve lost a safe haven where I can unwind. Local governments are responsible for the maintenance of green spaces and although in an ideal scenario increasing their number and accessibility was a priority, creating more of them is a balancing act. The space of green space is often obtained for creating more housing or improved transport structure.
It is very easy to dismiss the importance of green space when it is there. Yet once it is taken away, it’s hard to hide from the fact that it changes the quality of life whether you’ve been enjoying the space passively or actively.