Dakota Gardener: The importance of green spaces

Esther McGinnis
NDSU Extension
Esther McGinnis, NDSU Extension horticulturist

Gazing across the white landscape of the Northern Plains, I long for green spaces. I daydream about hiking in forests, vising botanical gardens and strolling in tree-lined parks. This longing is more than just a defense mechanism against our winter blizzards. Our longing reflects a biological need.

We instinctively know this. During the height of the pandemic, the general public flocked to city parks, gardens, arboreta and national parks. At first, these visits were prompted by the COVID-19 virus limiting our indoor recreational activities. However, many individuals continued visiting a wide variety of green spaces because they started realizing physical and mental health benefits.

Outdoor walks in natural settings lower blood pressure in all age groups. Heart rate is also affected. A recent study showed that adults had significantly lower heart rates when walking past landscaped areas compared to non-landscaped vacant lots. The stress hormone, cortisol, is also reduced in green spaces.

The physical benefits of access to green spaces are not limited to adults. Children with access to tree-lined city parks and landscaped schoolyards are more likely to be physically active.

Physical benefits are not limited to adults. Children with access to tree-lined city parks and landscaped schoolyards are more likely to be physically active. Anything that can lure children away from screens is a good thing.

In addition to physical benefits, green spaces can result in improved mental health. Many studies show a correlation between close proximity to nature and reduced anxiety and depression.

Two related studies further illuminate the restorative power of nature. University of Michigan researchers were studying recently-diagnosed breast cancer patients. These patients were in emotional distress and then compelled to make a series of treatment decisions.

Overwhelmed patients commonly reported a significant decrease in their cognitive capacity and their ability to pay attention even before surgery. The researchers studied this phenomenon in 150 newly-diagnosed patients and divided the group in two. Half were instructed to spend 120 minutes per week in green spaces and were offered free admission to botanical gardens. The other half was the control group. Green space activities could be active (walking in the garden) or passive (taking a scenic drive) as their physical conditions allowed. The patients were evaluated before and after surgery for their ability to take tests that required focus and attention.

The two studies found that spending time in green spaces before and after surgery allowed the women to overcome their mental fatigue and to restore their ability to pay attention.

Society invests large amounts in health products but our connection to nature may be equally important. How can you reap the benefits of green space? First, support research in this area.

Currently, the benefits of different types of green space are not well understood. Is there a difference between visiting a natural landscape such as a state forest versus a well-designed garden? We don’t definitively know at this time. However, that shouldn’t deter you.

Visit green spaces that you find attractive and make you feel relaxed. Take a walk in the local park, have a picnic at a state park or add more greenery to your yard.