Knowing how important green spaces are for mental health, can we take what we know and apply them to cityscapes where taking those “forest baths” are unavailable? It turns out that we can–but it's more than just the color green.
The benefits of green spaces and exposure to trees to reduce anxiety and depression is becoming more well-known, but it isn’t always easy to apply those techniques to a bustling city landscape. In larger cities where driving to the country is the only way to become truly immersed in the green landscapes of grass and trees, the practice of “forest bathing” as coined by the Japanese is almost unavailable to a large number of people across all ages.
At the Nanyang Technological University Singapore, a research team of psychologists hypothesized that the color green alone was enough to stimulate the same feelings of wellbeing and stress reduction, even in the midst of a city rush hour. They first developed a virtual reality program in which participants used a VR headset and then explored a city landscape which had streets either decorated with green plants on balconies, parts of buildings, or pillars versus a street where the walls where painted green.
To simulate the same experience and stress of walking in a real city, the participants listened to tracks of loud noise from busy traffic. Their heart rates were monitored and heart rate variability was measured as a reaction of stress by an ECG, and after the experiment they completed a questionnaire about how they felt in the different scenarios.
This painted “vertical greenery” increased a measure of stress in their heart rate variability, but those who were exposed to the green plants did not have any change in stress markers. Additionally, self-reported measures of anxiety and state of mind reflected that walking through a street with buildings painted green reported feeling less positive afterwards. Those that walked through buildings with real plants did not report a change in their frame of mind, but the physiological markers of stress reflect that the group with real plants experienced less stress.
The researchers are hoping to be able to prove the benefits of having real green plant exposure incorporated into future building developments as a means to reduce stress on city residents. In this case, it seems there isn’t a replacement for the real thing.
Sarah Hian May Chan, Lin Qiu, Gianluca Esposito et al. Vertical greenery buffers against stress: Evidence from psychophysiological responses in virtual reality. Landscape and Urban Planning, 2021; 213: 104127 DOI: 10.1016/J.LANDURBPLAN.2021.104127