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Making the Case: Health & Well-Being

With the rapid growth of urbanization and the human population, public gardens offer refuge from the noise, pollution, and stress often associated with urban human activity. Natural environments affect human health and well-being both directly and indirectly. Public gardens provide opportunities for physical activity and stress relief, and are spaces for social interaction. Chronic stress, physical inactivity, and lack of social cohesion are three major risk factors for non-communicable diseases, and therefore public gardens are an important asset for a healthy lifestyle. Gardens have a unique way of reorienting us to the beauty of life and provide inspiration and tools for making positive changes.

Ensuring healthy lives and promoting the well-being for all at all ages is essential to sustainable development. The Health and Well-Being Attribute focuses on how public gardens can make significant strides to eradicate a wide range of diseases and address many different persistent and emerging health issues. The evidence around the effects of natural environments on health and well-being is steadily increasing, such as health services through functional ecosystems, early life exposure to biodiverse microbiota, which is important for immune-system development, and sensory exposure, which has direct neurobiological impact supporting cognitive development and stress resilience. Research also shows lower mortality rates and prevalence of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, healthier pregnancy outcomes, reduced health inequalities, and improved mental health in urban areas with greater amounts of green and blue space.

Research has proven that being around plants makes people feel calmer and more relaxed. Psychologist Michael Perlman has written of the psychological power of trees, as evidenced by mythology, dreams, and self-reported emotional responses. The concept that plants have a role in mental health is well established. Hospitals, for example, have traditionally had gardens as an adjunct to recuperation and healing. Perhaps this time-honored practice reflects a recognition that proximity to plants may in some circumstances enhance health. Due to the lack of access to large tracks of public land and open space often found in rural and less densely populated areas, many people visit public gardens for the immersive experience in nature (sometimes for the first time for children that have grown up in an urban environment). The mere presence of a garden in these areas is viewed as therapeutic and an aspect of health and well-being for visitors whose daily work environment is in an office or uban setting. Fostering a sense of belonging in the landscape and taking better care of the environment can also incentivize people to value nature for their own health and well-being, as people recognize the mutually beneficial relationship to their natural environment. Establishing thoughtful health and well-being programming in a public garden setting can also leverage a discussion on sustainability: by taking care of our environment, our quality of life can improve,

The present disconnect between children and nature threatens the health of children and the places they live. The average North American child currently spends seven to ten hours each day staring at screens, and mere minutes engaged in unstructured outdoor play, a dramatic transformation within the past generation. As a result, rates of obesity, ADHD, heart disease, and depression among children have been skyrocketing. Numerous studies now demonstrate the critical importance of unstructured nature play and the power of hands-on, place-based learning in natural settings for growing minds and bodies. In addition, the urban and regional environments that sustain us are also at risk. The creation of ecologically sustainable communities depends on people caring about where they live. We learn to care by spending time outdoors: building and nurturing emotional and intellectual connections.


"Human and environmental health are so inextricably connected. I think we tend to speak about these things as 2 separate entities. We’ve put each in their own box, their own silo. I think that’s really wrong to be thinking about them separately. Our health is directly tied to the health of the environment. So, as public garden officials, I know many of us are concerned about the environment, and we have a lot of initiatives on conservation, and loss of biodiversity, but it’s all connected."

~Executive Director, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

"Cultural institutions have a loud voice, and tend to be very trusted by families, so I think they have the ability to reach them with a lot of messages. Given the rates of childhood obesity, and the rates of adult obesity and chronic disease, programs at gardens can go a long way in terms of health, if they’re able to equip guests with the skills and knowledge about how to be healthy."

~Pittsburgh Program Director, Let’s Move

"One of the great parts about garden programs is it gets kids out of their neighborhood to a part of the city they’ve never been; they find themselves in the middle of a forest preserve or on a farm outside the city, it’s their first real connection with nature and with other people outside their community. It then gives them confidence as they work with others to accomplish a goal and in that sense helps with their mental health. They become less dependent on what is just a few blocks from them and realize there is much more going on outside their community that they can contribute to."

~Associate Vice President, Urban Agriculture/Windy City Harvest, Chicago Botanic Garden