The benefits of spending time outdoors are well known. Whether travelling for an hour to reach open countryside or simply walking five minutes to a nearby urban park, being in and around nature makes us happier and healthier. Across entire societies, better access to parks and gardens reduces crime and helps people get on with one another.
Increasing the amount of nature and green space that people experience in their everyday lives should, therefore, result in noticeable improvements to public health and well-being. It could offer many billions in savings on social care and visits to the doctor.
More and more cities are looking for ways to increase the number of parks and open areas so that we can all benefit. However, we still don’t really know what works best and why. Most research has focused solely on creating more green spaces and making them easily accessible, on the grounds that people will spend more time there and reap the benefits. And there is some intriguing evidence that nature reserves or other areas with more diverse wildlife provide even more benefits above and beyond a typical park or garden.
But creating more parks is expensive – even simply maintaining the current ones is hard enough – let alone managing them to encourage more wildlife in our cities. Getting people to visit parks more often and for longer is difficult. Then there is the complex task of establishing whether either approach has worked; gathering crucial evidence to justify continued investment is practically impossible for an average parks department in an average city.
Perhaps worrying about the finer points of what makes the “ideal” green space stops us from following other solutions, as there are a variety of cheaper alternatives that are easier to implement and which might have the potential to do more or less the same amount of “good” for people. For instance, if most of the benefits of an outdoor space come from providing the opportunity for people to socialise, play games and take in the sunshine, then do we need “real” nature at all?
The grass is always greener on the AstroTurf
Synthetic nature is everywhere, particularly during the summer. Pop-up “parks” transform city streets into public green spaces by closing them to traffic and laying down AstroTurf. City beaches, such as those in Sheffield or Brixton in south London, import sand so families can play, relax and spend time out of doors. Piping birdsong into service stations leaves customers feeling happier. And the Pokémon Go phenomenon encourages gamers off the sofa to track down fantasy animals in the outdoor world.
Evidence suggests that this synthetic nature can also be good for human well-being, as well as helping people live more active lives. Indeed, it appears to be possible to “trick” the human body into thinking that it is exposed to nature, such as when people exhibit higher pain tolerance while watching videos of mountains, waterfalls and colourful flowers, or nature videos and pictures of plants reducing stress levels in hospital waiting rooms or among blood donors.
We’ve still a lot to learn here though as other research has suggested, that videos of nature are no better than brick walls when it comes to stress reduction. Perhaps we do get greater benefits in “real” natural spaces, with a diversity of real wildlife, natural habitats and landscapes. There is also growing evidence that it is the animals, plants, and micro-organisms that we come into contact with that contribute to our health, rather than simply observing greenery.
Natural green spaces also do many other jobs. Trees reduce air pollution and moderate the temperature by providing shade. And soil protects against flooding as even heavy rainfall can only seep through relatively slowly helping to prevent drainage systems overloading.
In contrast, providing a thin veneer of nature over stone could be counterproductive. While natural grass and trees can reduce urban temperatures during the summer, artificial grass actually makes it hotter.
But fake nature is still better than no nature. Where real trees and grass are absent or difficult to provide, we should embrace the synthetic and enjoy the fake plastic turf before winter drives us all indoors.