Do urban green spaces with more birds promote positive emotions?

Our latest research paper has just been published in Urban Ecosystems, this blog provides excerpts and a brief summary of the full paper which is available open access. The research was part of the Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature project which was all about the relationships between urban green space and residents health and well-being. I’ve already written about one key outcome of the project, our smartphone app that led to clinically significant improvements in mental health through noticing the good things in nature. Another part of the app was for users to rate both biodiversity and the positive emotions of the green spaces they visited.

In a world that is rapidly urbanising access to nature and green spaces can be restricted owing to urban sprawl or provision of green space not being prioritised. Urbanisation is also associated with habitat loss and reduction in biodiversity. Yet urban green space is good for wellbeing – however will any type of green space do? Is green space with greater biodiversity better for wellbeing? Is it simply about access to nature or engagement?

The human need for nature is now seen in some models of health, for example the ‘one health’ perspective. Nature is a positive force for wellbeing and is central to positive emotional states helping manage our emotions. The beneficial effects of nature on wellbeing are driven by increases in positive affect. Positive emotions broaden thoughts and actions and help build resilience, leading to sustained well-being benefits. There is also a relationship between positive affect and immune function through up-regulation of immune components. In the published research we use ‘in the moment’ emotional responses to nature in urban environments as a measure of positive emotion.

Higher levels of biodiversity have been linked to more positive psychological responses. Also, perceived floral richness has been linked to higher levels of nature connectedness which itself is associated with higher levels of wellbeing. However, care is required when defining urban biodiversity. Although urbanisation is linked with losses to native biodiversity, actual overall biodiversity can rise in parks due to the wide use of non-native and cultivated plants. In this study we restricted ourselves to birds and defined habitat types to avoid such complications.

Despite recent research on the value of green space for human well-being, it is not clear which types of urban green space should be promoted. Similarly, it is still not evident, to what extent such green spaces need to be biologically-rich to elicit positive emotions. Therefore our research set out to determine how typology of urban green space affected human emotion (how happy people felt) and whether more positive emotion was associated with higher biodiversity (as determined by bird species richness and habitat number) and participants’ perceptions of biodiversity or bird abundance.

The detailed method and results can be found in the full paper, but in brief results showed a strong relationship between levels of bird biodiversity within a green space and emotional response to that space. People reported being:

  • Happier in sites with greater variety of birds.
  • Happier in sites with a greater variety of habitats

Further, these relationships were strengthened when people thought the site was wildlife rich, even if it was not. The results strengthen the argument that nature enhances wellbeing through positive affect, and that increased engagement with nature may help support human wellbeing within urban environments. The results also have strong implications for city planning with respect to the design, management and use of city green spaces.

The positive results were found even when the green spaces may not necessarily be regarded as ‘top quality’ in terms of infrastructure, management and wildlife habitat. For example, a park with the highest bird biodiversity and habitat number and therefore promoting positive emotions, did not warrant a ‘Green Flag’ award; a standard based on public accessibility, environmental standards, maintenance levels and facilities available. Perhaps there’s a need for a ‘Green Heart’ award for those places that best enhance wellbeing and facilitate nature connectedness through facilitating the pathways to nature connectedness.

The results are also encouraging as the general publics’ perceived biodiversity related strongly with actual bird biodiversity. This provides further evidence of people having an innate, but latent, connection to the rest of the natural world – or the secret network of nature. Also, there was some evidence that engagement with nature increased with use of the smartphone app, perceptions of biodiversity and emotional levels increased, suggesting that noticing the good things in nature (which increased nature connectedness) stimulated people to become more aware of nature.

Our previous work shows that engagement with nature’s beauty mediates the relationship between nature connectedness and happiness. Another interesting aspect of the results was that people with a high level of engagement with natural beauty responded less positively when they perceived low biodiversity than those with less engagement. Also, those more engaged with nature’s beauty responded more positively when they thought the green space was biologically rich. This suggests that for people who have a strong appreciation of nature’s beauty viewing biodiversity is important for positive emotions. However, they may also have the most to lose emotionally if green spaces become less diverse. The conundrum here is that we need people to have a stronger connection with the rest of nature to bring about pro-nature behaviours, yet in doing so we could expose more people to lower positive emotions and eco-anxiety if closer relationships with nature aren’t matched with the restoration of nature.

Further the results suggest that not any type of wildlife will do. Our relationships between positive emotions and bird biodiversity were stronger than those with bird species abundance, though the relationships with abundance improved when the more common species like pigeons and ducks were removed from the analysis. It is important that policy makers and conservation bodies maximise the opportunities to enhance biodiversity within urban areas – it is encounters with a variety of wildlife that appears important to many city residents.

A variety of birds is best for wellbeing

In sum, the results show some of the strongest correlations between urban biodiversity and positive emotions published to date. Policy makers need to consider more carefully the value that wildlife has for urban residents – our analysis of the good things in nature showed urban wildlife was important. The research strengthens the arguments that positive emotions can be strongly influenced by a connection to nature and the opportunity to engage with nature and appreciate its beauty. The results suggest that the type of green space matters and planners need to give space for quite extensive, diverse, green landscapes within urban areas. Finally, the results also suggest there is a need to move beyond access to connection and engagement – creating green spaces that prompt and give the opportunity to engage with a range of wildlife and the good things in nature.

 

Cameron, R.W.F., Brindley, P., Mears, M. et al. Where the wild things are! Do urban green spaces with greater avian biodiversity promote more positive emotions in humans?. Urban Ecosyst (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11252-020-00929-z

About Miles

Applied psychologist researching our connection with nature and ways to improve it. Good for nature, good for you.
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1 Response to Do urban green spaces with more birds promote positive emotions?

  1. Mat Castle says:

    Really interesting piece…my friend who is an urban planner with a green slant thought it was great. Keep up the good work, Mat

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