THE GLOBE AND MAIL
As temperatures warmed last spring, Montrealers flocked to Mount Royal Park. Trapped inside – first by winter, then by lockdowns – the city’s residents were desperate for nature. The winding trails, lush forests and steep escarpments of Mount Royal offered an ideal remedy for their cabin fever. And as the pandemic has dragged on, the 700-acre green space has become such a popular destination that the city has repeatedly closed its parking lots to limit access during peak periods.
“The mountain has been intensely used during the pandemic,” says Juan Torres, a professor in the school of urban planning and landscape architecture at the University of Montreal, which is set on the north slope of the mountain. Unable to travel to Mexico to visit his mother and go to the sea, Prof. Torres and his family have spent much of the past year exploring the mountain and the island’s riverside green spaces. “It has been a great stress reliever,” he says.
Humans, it turns out, often seek out nature more earnestly in times of crisis. War, pandemics and natural disasters have led to the launch of community gardens for veterans and widows, and compelled people to tend to trees that survived bombings. That phenomenon, called “urgent biophilia,” may bring emotional balance to people overwhelmed by a crisis.
Urban nature is important for mental health over all – city dwellers who live near green spaces are less depressed and anxious than those who don’t.
More people are grasping nature’s benefits as the pandemic has put people out of work, forced families to juggle jobs and school from the kitchen table and curbed social interactions.
In a national survey from the not-for-profit group Park People, 82 per cent of Canadians said parks had become more important to their mental health during the pandemic, and 55 per cent of cities said park use had increased.
“Many people may think that urban nature is nice to have, that it’s pretty or a bonus. But actually, it’s absolutely essential to our mental and physical health,” says Carly Ziter, an urban landscape ecologist at Concordia University.
Nature in cities provides people with a place to exercise. Parks also gives people places to socialize with friends and family, which makes people happier. During the pandemic, urban green spaces have become rare hubs of acceptable social activity when public-health authorities have urged people to stay one caribou (Yukon), two lobster traps (Halifax) or three racoons (Toronto) apart.
But research suggests there’s something about how our brains interact with nature that yields psychological benefits. A visit to a natural area delivers sights, sounds and smells – the varied greens of a spring forest; the trill of a redwing blackbird; the whiff of petrichor, the earthy odour produced after rain falls on dry soil – that can improve our mental health by resetting our mood, focus and creativity.
With more than 80 per cent of Canadians now living in urban and suburban environments, understanding the links between nature and mental health could go a long way to improving our well-being. City dwellers tend to be healthier over all than their rural neighbours, except when it comes to mental health. They are 20 per cent more likely to have anxiety and 40 per cent more likely to develop depression.
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