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Greening Spaces for Stress Reduction? Hong Kong Researchers Unveil Latest Study Results30.11.2020

Neuroimaging studies revealed that people who spend more time in nature and greener settings have an easier time managing their stress levels and maintaining their composure. 

Earlier this May, we wrote about the Princeton Environmental Study, during which respondents were polled to establish which popular activities best promote emotional wellbeing. The study revealed that eating out, bicycling, long walks, and gardening all were the most frequently reported drivers of happiness. For many of the respondents, gardening, particularly for vegetables, was a source of relaxation and improved their general wellbeing. Strikingly, home gardening had an especially pronounced impact on low-income respondents. 

A team at the University of Hong Kong recently arrived at very similar conclusions, which they elaborated upon in a recent article for NeuroImage: “In the past decade, there has been a lot of research across varying disciplines that has converged to indicate that nature-containing environments such as those carrying an abundance of trees or foliage can enhance mental well-being,” reads the joint statement penned by the authors of the study. “For example, individuals exposed to green environments report lower levels of stress than those in less-green settings. In this work, we were interested in asking just how green environments engage the human brain, and how stress-regulatory benefits come about from exposure to these environments. It is one thing to show that all these environments are good for us — but it is just as important to understand why,” the research team added. 

The Hong Kong study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) methods to examine dozens of volunteers, who were shown pictures of neighborhood streets with different greenery densities. Two weeks after the control scan, they returned to the lab. “It turns out environments (in our case, urban landscapes) with varying degrees of green-cover, activate a primitive part of the brain—the posterior cingulate. This region is particularly intriguing as it is a part of a larger (limbic) system that is known for its role in serving motivation- and emotion-related responses (…) [it also] acts as an early driver that ultimately interfaces with stress regulatory responses in the neuroendocrine system,” the researchers explained further. 

The neurological and cognitive insights from the study may ultimately impact how we design cities in the future. “Planning our environment to promote mental well-being is of utmost importance because of the increasing prevalence of stress-induced mood problems associated with urban living,” the Hong Kong researchers emphasized. “Such knowledge will help not only in designing more beneficial and therapeutic green-infrastructure systems for healthy cities of the future, but also feeds into the Faculty of Architecture’s research on VR-AR-IM technologies for providing green-therapy for people without access to outdoor green experience (severely disabled, hospitals, factories, prisons),” the team concluded.


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