Monique Keiran: Want to feel better? Walk in the park

Back when Nature Boy worked at a big California museum, I flew down to visit on a semi-regular basis.

I remember looking out over the city as the aircraft made its final approach to L.A.’s airport. Below me stretched kilometre upon kilometre of concrete: buildings, roads, freeways, parking lots. Few trees and no green spaces relieved the sunbaked ugliness that extended from the mountains in the city’s east to the Pacific Ocean.

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No wonder, I thought at the time, crime rates were so high. No wonder crazy people were using drivers on Los Angeles freeways for target practice — events which, by that time, were so commonplace, even the most reputable of the city’s news organizations no longer reported them.

With so many people living in Los Angeles, the absolute number of already-crazy people living among them was going to be high.

But packing so many people so close together would surely compound the problem, I thought. Those conditions could easily push anybody unstable and close to the breaking point, mentally and emotionally speaking, over the edge into outright nuttiness.

I had little to base my argument on but my own visceral reactions to the endless concrete, crowds and traffic, and the results of studies I’d read about, in which laboratory rats were kept in overcrowded conditions. In those experiments, rodents harbouring homicidal instincts quickly turned psychopathic, preying on cage-mates and providing fodder for discussion by behavioural psychologists, urban planners, animal-research ethicists and science writers for decades thereafter.

It turns out my left-brain reasoning and my right-brain instincts both were sound.

Not that I’m congratulating myself. The accuracy of my once-upon-a-time speculations does, however, underscore why Nature Boy and I ended up choosing to live in Victoria and not in L.A., despite Victoria’s cost of living and other limitations.

The capital region, after all, has ample parks and other green spaces. It also has residential gardens and easy access to mountains, forests, beaches and sea.

A growing body of research emphasizes the importance of that kind of green space to the health of the human animal — particularly human animals living in cities.

The studies link access to parks and other kinds of green space with fewer cases of physical and mental illness, with particular moderating effects on anxiety and depression. Even after accounting for differences in income, marital status, employment, physical health and type of housing, researchers have also found that people living in urban areas are just plain happier and feel better about their lives when they live near parks, gardens and similar places.

Furthermore, social scientists in the U.K. have determined mood and sense of personal well-being often improve markedly after subjects spend a mere five minutes engaging in “green exercise.”

That sounds suspiciously like a plug for Bike to Work Week. However, the Green Exercise Team — yes, there is such an organization — at the University of Essex defines green exercise as any physical activity that takes place in nature. That could be cycling or walking or taking the dog for a run along one of the region’s trails, playing ball with your kids at the park or digging weeds out of your garden.

Yet another study found that greener city neighbourhoods have less crime than treeless ’hoods. The association remained even after researchers accounted for poverty, education and population density. By encouraging people to spend time outdoors socializing, neighbourhood green spaces discourage crime. However, the mere presence of plants also relieves mental stress in humans. As mental stress lessens, irritability and impulse control, both considered to be precursors to violence, also improve.

The most violent of the crimes studied, aggravated assault, correlated most strongly with a neighbourhood’s greenness. The least violent crime, theft, showed little association.

Greater Victoria has more than 300 parks, thousands of gardens and tree-lined streets. It follows, then, that residents here should be feeling happy and pleased with ourselves.

Provided, of course, we take the time to appreciate and experience those riches — even for just five minutes a day.

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