New research has unearthed a link between green space and the mental health of children living in an English city.
The study, part of the landmark Born in Bradford programme, looked at the impact of nature on the wellbeing of four-year-old children living in the West Yorkshire city.
The research, believed to be the first of its kind to explore the relationship between the quantity, quality, and use of green space and its effect on mental health, was recently published in The Lancet’s Planetary Health journal.
A total of 2,594 mums (1,518 participants were South Asian, 738 of white British origin, and 333 from another ethnicity) were asked to report on their children’s mental wellbeing between 2012 and 2015, and the amount of green space available in their neighbourhood was calculated using satellite images.
Mums were also asked how satisfied they were with their local parks, and how often their children played outside in green spaces.
Residential green space
Researchers looked at the amount of residential green space around each of the participants’ homes and the distance to large parks. Green spaces were defined as public parks including play areas designed for children. Parents answered a series of questionnaires about how often and how long their children played out in both summer and winter, and how satisfied they were with their local parks.
Over four years, follow-up assessments were conducted to examine the effect on the children’s mental health, as perceived by their mothers, including other important lifestyle, demographic and socio-economic factors.
The majority of families involved in the study (66 per cent) lived in areas deemed some of the most deprived inner city wards of the country.
Author and BiB Director, Dr Rosie McEachan, said: “Although we know green spaces are good for health, up until our study we didn’t really know whether quantity, quality or the amount of time children spent outdoors was most important for children’s mental wellbeing.
“With more than 50 per cent of the global population and 73 per cent of Europe’s population living in urban areas, urban green spaces could be crucial in in improving quality of life for city dwellers.
“We also know that mental wellbeing during childhood is a key predictor of mental health in adulthood, so figuring out the potential of urban green spaces to promote positive mental wellbeing in children is important.”
The research found that that among South Asian children, the amount of green space in the local neighbourhood had a positive impact on their health as it was associated with fewer behavioural difficulties.
However, the team also discovered that satisfaction with local parks was a more important predictor of children’s mental wellbeing, suggesting that quality, in addition to quantity, are key to unlocking the health benefits of green spaces. By contrast, no such associations were observed among white British children.
Quality of green space
Dr McEachan explained: “We asked families how satisfied were they with their local parks and green space. When parents reported greater satisfaction with these spaces, their children’s mental wellbeing was greater.
“This suggests that quality of green spaces is a more important predictor of children’s mental wellbeing than simply having lots of it around.
“Our research also found that South Asian children spent less time playing outside in parks and that their parents were less satisfied with their green places.
“The reasons why South Asian mums are less satisfied with their local parks and use them less may be because many of these families live in inner city areas where the quality of local parks is not as good as other areas.”
The study also found that white British families lived on average 221 metres from large areas of green space (>0.5 hectares, about half the size of a football pitch), but South Asian families tended to live in less green areas.
Only 14 per cent of South Asian families lived in the greenest parts of the city, compared with 34 per cent of white British families.
The study also found that children spent on average six hours per week playing outside in summer, but this fell dramatically to only one-and-a-half hours per week in winter.
The authors – who also included Professor John Wright, Director of Research at the Bradford Institute for Health Research, and Research Fellow, Dr Tiffany Yang – believe their findings should encourage urban planners and public health professionals to work together to increase the availability and quality of green spaces for communities living in inner-city areas.
Dr McEachan added: “It is shocking that poorer, inner-city families have less access to the health promoting benefits of high quality local parks and green spaces which could have a clear beneficial impact on their health.
“We hope our research will make policy makers think about innovative ways of making our poorer neighbourhoods and communities greener and healthier places to live in as this may have a significant benefit on the mental health of our children.
Happier and healthier children
“For South Asian children – and for those other children living in deprived inner cities around the country – living close to and playing in green spaces can alleviate mental health symptoms and lead to happier and healthier children.
“But we need to think about the quality of our parks and not just the quantity, as provision of green space alone is unlikely to produce health benefits.”
Professor Wright said: “Our research reinforces how green space in our cities is so important in protecting our mental health, as well as providing a place for improving physical health.
“We hope that it will provide more momentum for health sectors and urban designers to work together to harness the power of nature to prevent ill-health.”
The study is part of the landmark Born in Bradford (BiB) study, one of the biggest and most important health research studies undertaken in the UK as it is tracking the lives of thousands of the city’s children into adulthood and beyond.
The BiB project is based at the Bradford Institute for Health Research (BIHR), within the grounds of Bradford Royal Infirmary.
Previous BiB research has shown that green spaces are related to reducing reporting of depressive symptoms in pregnancy and healthier birthweight in babies. BiB are now working with the Better Start Bradford programme to explore how we can improve local green spaces within the city to improve the wellbeing of families with children aged under four.
For more information about the study, visit: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(18)30119-0
For more information about the Born in Bradford programme visit: www.borninbradford.nhs.uk
Photo: Ian Beesley