This is an old claim but the evidence for it is slight. The actual research studies done routinely fail to use adequate socio-economic controls. "Green" suburbs are desirable so cost more. But the rich people who move there are healthier anyway. That rich people are healthier is probably the best replicated finding in epidemiology
How green is your valley? If you live somewhere in Sydney that has access to parks, trees, fresh air, good food and walkable streets, it’s odds on that you’ll be healthier, fitter and will live to a grand old age.
If, however, you’re trapped somewhere with little greenery, lots of pollution and have to hop in a car and fight traffic jams to get anywhere you want to go, then, sorry, but precisely the opposite is likely to be true.
“There is now so much evidence and research done on how access to the natural environment is good for both our physical and mental health,” says Dr Nicky Morrison, professor of planning at the Western Sydney University and one of the leading academic authorities on the subject.
“There’s also a lot of research on how we change the built environment to deliver resilient, healthy and sustainable communities. But there are many barriers to this all along the way, with local government having limited capacity and competing priorities, and state government wanting to deliver housing – often at the expense of public open space.”
Yet, there’s a growing realisation throughout most cities in the world that quality green open space isn’t merely an aesthetic adornment to the urban environment, it’s an absolute necessity.
The accessibility within cities to green spaces has been found to have numerous benefits, says Morrison, including increasing overall well-being and quality of life, fitness, cognitive ability, productivity, imaginative powers, creativity and spiritual vitality, and decreasing obesity, stress, the effects of ageing, sickness and mental health issues.
There’s evidence, too, that regular engagement with green spaces is linked with longevity, and the healing power of nature has hugely positive impacts on physical strength, socialisation and mental ill-health.
Meanwhile, the experience of living with the COVID-19 pandemic and local lockdowns has only strengthened the attraction of having open green areas in neighbourhoods, or the lure of further afield.
A new report on NSW, Making Healthy Places, by researchers from the University of NSW City Futures Research Centre and the southwest Sydney local health unit, led by Dr Nicky Morrison, shows that the built environment can positively impact the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities.
Where you live, it found, shapes how easy it is to buy healthy food, use active transport, and make social connections. Survey participants said the most important aspects of healthy place-making were in enabling active lifestyles, with walkability to shops, schools and work most important. They also said that increasing access to natural environments and opportunities for social interaction were vital for their mental health.
The main issue it identified was how to go about creating more open green places that help deliver positive health and wellbeing outcomes for all.
“We are all much more aware now of the importance of green spaces in our cities,” says professor Susan Thompson, professor of planning and associate director of City Futures. “I’ve been working in this space for a long, long time now, and we’ve been advocating for a more comprehensive and holistic policy towards green spaces that will keep people healthy and well through the course of their lives.