by Rohan Silva: Politicians underestimate the value of green spaces in a great city like London
In the early Eighties, a young psychologist did something unusual. His name was Roger Ulrich, and he started reviewing the hospital records of patients recovering from surgery to compare the recovery rates for people with bedside windows looking out on to trees with those of patients who could only see brick walls from their beds.
What did he find? On average, the ones who could look at natural landscapes healed faster, needed significantly less pain medication and had fewer complications post-surgery.
If you think about it, this makes sense. After all, we humans evolved in natural environments, so it’s understandable that we respond so well to plants, trees and biodiversity.
As Florence Williams puts it in her remarkable new book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative: “Our nervous systems are built to resonate with the natural world.”
There’s a wealth of evidence backing up this claim. In 2009 a team of researchers in Holland found a lower incidence of 15 diseases — including depression, anxiety, heart disease, asthma, diabetes and migraines — among people living within half a mile of green space.
And in Japan, academics at Chiba University measured the health impact of walking in forests — and found a marked benefit: a 16 per cent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a two per cent drop in blood pressure, and a four per cent drop in heart rate.
Back in the Victorian age, politicians didn’t have access to this kind of scientific data but they did understand the benefits of being exposed to nature. As early as 1833, the British government was commissioning official reports on the case for creating public parks to improve the wellbeing of working people.
As one report concluded: “A park in the East End of London would probably cut annual deaths by several thousand, and add several years to the lives of the entire population.” As a result, an Act of Parliament was passed to create Victoria Park, one of the first parks in the world designed to meet the needs of the surrounding communities.
From Battersea to Finsbury Park, enlightened Victorian thinking led to the creation of generous green spaces across the capital.
Unfortunately, today we’re heading in the opposite direction. While London’s population is rising, we’re not creating new parks to keep pace, meaning fewer people can access green spaces. According to The Wildlife Trusts, fewer than 10 per cent of children today ever play in natural areas, compared with 40 per cent of adults who did when they were growing up.
And soulless corporate office blocks aren’t helping either — devoid of trees and nature, they’re making our city a less healthy place to live. Developers tend to see trees as an unnecessary cost, while the bureaucratic planning system makes things worse — at my company Second Home we were told by planners that we couldn’t plant fruit trees on the street in front of our building, on the grounds that they’d “make a mess”. (We did it anyway.)
It doesn’t have to be like this. Singapore spends $200 million every year greening its capital — and, as a result, the percentage of residents living close to green spaces has actually increased in recent years, even as the population has grown.
If we recaptured the 19th century ambition to create more green spaces in our city, the benefits would be immense. Unfortunately, today’s politicians, planners and developers are less like the farsighted Victorians, and more like Woody Allen, who once said: “I love nature, I just don’t want to get any of it on me.” If we can change that daft attitude, London will be a healthier and happier place for all of us.