Our planet is getting increasingly urban. More than 80 percent of the U.S. population now lives in a city, according to Census numbers. And by 2050, more than 70 percent of the world population is expected to be living in an urban environment.
As more and more people are packed into expanding cities, green space within them—parks and other outposts of plant life—gets increasingly scarce. In Singapore, urban planners have compensated for this loss by placing green space in places you wouldn’t expect, like the tops of buildings.
Why does urban green space matter? Well, there’s a litany of documented benefits to incorporating plant life into city life, according to the World Health Organization, many of which are related to mental health. Access to public green space may have the power to soothe depressive thoughts and encourage creativity.
A recent episode of “60 Second Docs” featured Summer Rayne Oakes, a woman who has created an urban jungle by filling her Brooklyn apartment with more than 600 plants. She opens the space up to meditation groups seeking nature in the heart of the city. People who come into her home often feel like they’re taking a breath for the first time, she said.
If you’re a city-dweller, new research by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Munich suggests that where you live in relation to green space can have an impact on your brain’s health, too.
Though there are many benefits to city living, it carries more mental health risks than rural living does: City dwellers are more prone to depression, anxiety and schizophrenia, according to the institute. A part of the brain that’s key in processing stress and reacting to danger—the amygdala—is actually more active in a city slicker than in a person who lives away from the hustle and bustle.
But the benefits of rural life can be somewhat replicated in a rural environment. Researchers at the institute, led by psychologist Simone Kühn, learned that living near a certain type of nature within a city can have an effect on stress-processors in the brain, including the amygdala.
Across education and income levels, city dwellers living close to a forest were more likely to have a healthy amygdala, and were presumably better equipped to deal with stress, the researchers found by overlaying geographic information about the homes of more than 300 Berlin adults with MRIs of their brains.
If you live in Austin, Charlotte, Denver, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York, Portland, Sacramento, Seattle or Washington, D.C., you’re in luck. These are the 10 cities that the nonprofit American Forests determined have the best urban forests. These cities, and cities across the country and world, are recognizing the importance of infusing urban environments with their own forests.
Unfortunately, the same amygdala health data didn’t hold true for city folks who live near an urban green space—like a park—or a body of water (that doesn’t mean there aren’t many other benefits to having public parks and bodies of water nearby).
These are just the first results in what should be a long-term study of the effects of green space on stress in urban settings, the researchers said. It’s possible that people with healthier amygdalas happen to be seeking out living spaces near urban forests. More research in other cities around the world is necessary to confirm how urban plants actually change the chemistry of human brains.
But it might be worth seeking out the urban forests in your area the next time you’re apartment-hunting.
Want to easily create your own “urban jungle” where you are? These plants are foolproof.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s web editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.