Creating community: The role of green and blue spaces in cities

Ben Duchac

Creating community: The role of green and blue spaces in cities

Cities have long recognized the ecological benefits of natural features such as forests and rain gardens. However, a new study from Vancouver, Canada emphasizes how accessible greenspace can improve community belonging – benefiting not only the city, but its residents as well. 

Rugel, E. J., Carpiano, R. M., Henderson, S. B., & Brauer, M. (2019). Exposure to natural space, sense of community belonging, and adverse mental health outcomes across an urban region. Environmental Research171, 365–377.  

Green and blue features such as city parks, street trees, and ponds are common tools used to bring nature into urban spaces. Not only do they appeal to our sense of fascination and need for relaxation, but they also provide us with places to get together with friends and meet our neighbors. Some studies have shown that green and blue spaces have positive effects on our physical and mental health. However, little is known about the ways that urban nature affects a sense of community belonging. 


Sense of community belonging (SoC) can be defined as the feeling of being connected to one’s community and playing a role within it. In an article published in Environmental Research, a team of researchers explored links between natural spaces, SoC, and health outcomes. The researchers looked at three distinct mental health outcomes: major depressive disorder, negative mental health, and psychological distress. Surprisingly, they found that natural spaces did not directly impact any of the three health outcomes. On the other hand, participants with better access to public neighborhood green and blue spaces had increased SoC. 


Going one step further, the researchers found that participants who had higher levels of SoC also had improvements in all three of the mental health outcomes. This suggests that natural spaces may not directly improve mental health, ratheran increased SoC can then lead to more positive outcomes. More benefits can be derived from green and blue spaces if they are accessible and available to the community.  


Green and blue spaces have the potential to positively impact human health, but maybe just not in the ways we might have thought. Natural spaces are known to improve overall ecosystem health by boosting a city’s resilience to extreme weather and storing carbon, among other things. In addition to ecological benefits, this research highlights that green and blue spaces can also bring communities together while helping to reduce loneliness and stress.  


Mental health is truly strengthened when urban planners deliberately design green and blue spaces so that they feel safe for marginalized communities, have features for seniors and youth alike, and are open and easily reached by all. These results show how being able to equally access these spaces can improve our ability to connect with one another. 


The link between urban nature and SoC may not have been well studied in the past, but this research provides urban planners and policymakers with a new way to design cities. The findings show that if neighborhoods can be designed so that all people can take a stroll in a garden or enjoy a good book on a shaded bench – and feel comfortable while there – there can be a positive effect on mental health. Ultimately, by improving and beautifying our cities, we can not only benefit the local ecosystem, but we can also improve the wellbeing of every resident. 

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