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Data shows urban nature is good for your mental wellbeing

With less people out and about because of the lockdown, it would appear nature has been benefiting, or at least venturing into new areas. There have been numerous reported instances of nature reclaiming urban spaces during the pandemic and some wonderful images of animals taking to the streets in towns and cities across the world.

And with more time on their hands, it also seems people are taking more notice of the intrinsic delights of nature and turning to the natural world for solace during these testing times. Mainstream media outlets have reported on the importance of nature to people’s mental health.

It’s timely, then, that the impact of urban wildlife and how an awareness of nature is linked to mental wellbeing is explored in an interesting dataset recently released by the UK Data Service. Called Data from a smartphone app for improving mental health through urban nature 2016-2019, the dataset contains findings from a project carried out by researchers at the University of Derby.

They recruited 582 people living in Sheffield to use a smartphone app to write a daily comment about something ‘good’ in nature that they had noticed – the sight of a bird or flower, for example. This activity, according, to the project’s lead researcher, Professor Miles Richardson, increased participants’ ‘nature connectedness’ as they had to take a moment to engage positively with nature.

The app also tracked the user’s time and use of green spaces using about 1000 geolocations in the city, reminding them to notice the good things in nature when near green spaces as most people spend the vast majority of their day indoors. The app also recorded what the user was doing, who they were with and the amount of biodiversity in the green spaces.

At several instances during the project, the wellbeing of participants was surveyed.

“Our research shows noticing the good things in nature increases nature connectedness, and thereby mental wellbeing. We also found that those who started with a lower level of nature connectedness benefited most,” continued Prof Richardson, who believes the data could have implications for mental health treatment and urban planning.

The dominant theme which emerged was participants’ wonder at encountering animals in day-to-day urban settings. Within this theme of appreciating urban nature, a large number of observations in the study related to the enjoyment of hearing bird song. The second largest theme was that of expressing gratitude for street trees. The third most represented theme was the awe participants expressed at dramatic skies and views from high up looking down over the city.

Lead researcher Prof Richardson said: “These provide the inspiration for those that need it – but it really is simply remembering to take a moment to pause, look and listen. From birdsong to the movement of leaves in the breeze – taking a little time to note down the good things you notice makes a difference.”

The research was part of the £1.3 million Natural Environment Research Council funded project IWUN: Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature. A public version of the app has also been released – called ‘Nature Notes’ and is bundled within the iOS app Go Jauntly.