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Want to be happier and live longer? Protect green spaces

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Central Park almost didn’t exist. When it was first proposed, no comparable urban green space could be found in the whole of the United States—and it seemed unlikely that one would arise on land that could be put to other, more profitable use – especially with New York real estate values on a steady rise. But on May 5, 1851, Mayor Ambrose Kingsland proposed that a large public park might be just the thing for the growing city. Not only could it have a salutary impact, but it would allow Europeans to see that Americans could, too, be cultured and refined. Their Hyde Parks and Tuileries Gardens had nothing on us.

Olmstead and Vaux's map of Central Park, 1870.

Easier proposed than done. What followed Kingsland’s initial suggestion was three years of intense politicking and debate over the theoretical park’s location, size, cost, and control. Where would it be built and how? And whose interests would be represented in the process?

After several years of proposals and counter-proposals, the legislature finally settled on a single site: between 5th and 8th Avenue, beginning at 58th Street and extending up to 106th. By January 1854, the location was finalized. But even then, success was far from assured. Not only was the land swampy and rocky—not the best of locations for extensive development—but it held a sizable population of immigrants and locals – and even if they could be moved successfully, there was no consensus on what the park would look like or what it would entail.

It would take two years to clear the 1,600-odd residents out of the space. Irish pig farmers, German gardeners, and an entire community of black locals, complete with schools and church—Seneca Village—became a thing of memory. If they owned the land (and a surprising number did), they were compensated an average of $700 per lot. Otherwise, they were largely left to fend on their own.

The land successfully cleared of pesky inhabitants, a pressing concern still remained: what would the park look like—and who would be in control of its administration?

In 1857, the city announced a contest: who could design the best landscape for the new park? 33 proposals were submitted. The winner: a blueprint created by the park’s superintendent, Frederick Law Olmstead, and an English architect, Calvert Vaux. It was called the Greensward Plan and aimed to incorporate English pastoral designs with an overarching aesthetic unity. It would have recreations for the wealthy—carriage drives, equestrian paths, structured walks—as well as space for more democratic activities—the lawns and the ponds, the rambles and the meadows. One of the key components of the plan was that the park should remain uninterrupted by the encroachments of urban life: all of its transverse roads were to be sunk eight feet below the surface.

The vision was grand. To get there would take 20,000 men and 166 tons of dynamite, six million bricks and 35,000 barrels of cement, 65,000 cubic yards of gravel and 19,000 cubic yards of sand. Over 270,000 trees would be planted and three million cubic yards of soil moved (prime topsoil from New Jersey, that!). Four bodies of water would be constructed from scratch. At the end, it would take more gun powder to blast through the rocky ridges than would be fired at the yet-to-happen Battle of Gettysburg—and the total cost would skyrocket to $10 million, three times the city’s budget for 1850.

Central Park first opened to the public in the winter of 1859, though it would be a full twenty years from the Greensward Plan’s approval for it to be completed in full. Today, it’s hailed as a masterpiece of prescient urban planning, a synonym for New York’s vitality and beauty. But it’s also something more. Central Park may well be one of the reasons that New York City now boasts the single fastest increase in life expectancy of any city in the U.S, to the point where its citizens’ average lifespan—82—now equals that of Japan.

A new study in Psychological Science reveals that the benefits of urban green space—and the more of it, the better—extend far beyond the purely ornamental. Increases in green space correspond to increases in happiness, decreases in depression, and a general bump to well-being and life satisfaction. While we may not be happier if we live in California, it seems like we certainly are if we live with access to extensive greenery.

The British Household Panel Survey is a longitudinal, national survey of UK households that was conducted annually from 1991 to 2008. For the present study, researchers took data from over 5,000 households (and 10,000 individuals), focusing on the roughly 84% of respondents that were categorized as “urban” dwellers. They looked at three main data points: responses to the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ—a series of 12 questions that asks you to do things like compare your happiness or depression levels in the last six weeks to your “usual” state), a single question of life satisfaction (“How dissatisfied or satisfied are you with your life overall?” on a scale of 1 to 7), and amount of local-area green space. What they wanted to know was simple: all things being equal, would the same person be happier when he lived in urban areas with more greenery than in areas with less?

What they found was a clear relationship between the amount of local green space, mental distress, and life satisfaction. Specifically, the more green space, the higher the overall life satisfaction and the lower the mental distress. (And yes, they did control for all the things you’d expect: the income, employment, education, and local crime rates of each area, as well as the age, marital status, health, income, education, employment status, residence type and household space, and commute length of the individual participants.)

The size of the effect becomes clear if you compare it to two of the largest known predictors of long-term happiness, marital status and employment. People who live one standard deviation above the green space mean, as compared to one standard deviation below, experience a decrease in mental distress that is about one-third as large as the difference between being single and being married—and one-tenth as large as that between being unemployed and employed. For increases in life satisfaction, the comparisons are 28% and 21%, respectively.

That’s fairly impressive. And it can also account in part for why, despite the stress and the seemingly rapid pace of life, New York is outpacing others in terms of life expectancy gains. Happiness is closely related to longevity. Happier people tend to be healthier overall—and even controlling for baseline health, simple feelings of life satisfaction (and the closely-related absence of negative emotion) have been linked to better health outcomes and longer lives. Green design, it seems, isn’t just environmentally beneficial. It benefits us in far more immediate—and selfishly visible—ways.

Central Park almost didn’t exist. Why? Surely, it had little to do with the thought of displacing a few thousand Irish, German, and black residents. It was all about the politics—and the finances. How would it be profitable? Whom would it profit? Why would you ever want to give up the possibility of development on such a vast chunk of land, that happened to be right in the middle of the island—especially at a time when real estate prices were on such a rapid upward trajectory? It just didn’t make sense; wouldn’t something smaller and less grand have done just as well?

At the end, the real winner was vanity. Had it not been for the mysterious gentleman from Europe (later identified as the merchant prince Robert Bowne Minturn), his trip to the continent, and his subsequent desire to rise up to the cultivated level of the Europeans, with their parks and their promenades, the proposal for the park may never have seen the light of day – and if it did, may well have been defeated by more immediately commercially-minded motives. But the thought of no longer being ‘those heathen Americans’ was the ultimate in compelling appeals. Central Park was prescient—but the reasoning behind it, as often happens, far less so.

But maybe, there’s a lesson in that, too. If vanity can trump direct commercial motives, perhaps one of the ways toward greener designs and environmental preservation on a broader scale is to appeal to that vanity more directly. Protect nature and you may well find yourself living a longer—and happier—life as a result, through no direct effort of your own.

The history of Central Park drew heavily on two sources:Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar’s “The Park and the People: A History of Central Park” and John S. Berman’s “Portraits of America: Central Park.”

Image Credits: 1870 map of Central Park, Wikimedia Common, Public Domain. Central Park today: Sarah Ackerman, Flickr, Creative Commons. Central Park lake: Mike Fleming, Flickr, Creative Commons.

 



White, M., Alcock, I., Wheeler, B., & Depledge, M. (2013). Would You Be Happier Living in a Greener Urban Area? A Fixed-Effects Analysis of Panel Data Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612464659

Diener, E., & Chan, M. (2011). Happy People Live Longer: Subjective Well-Being Contributes to Health and Longevity Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 3 (1), 1-43 DOI: 10.1111/j.1758-0854.2010.01045.x

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. lump1 10:55 am 05/17/2013

    Whatever reasons there are behind the long life expectancy of New York residents, I really think it’s a stretch to attribute it to accessible green space. Surely, despite Central Park, New Yorkers have far less access to green space than the average American, simply due to the density of the city. If you’re looking for reasons why New York is exceptional, this isn’t where I would start.

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  2. 2. Maria Konnikova in reply to Maria Konnikova 11:00 am 05/17/2013

    Of course, it’s not close to the only reason. No doubt about it. But I think it can certainly help explain its success as a city–this study is only about urban areas. And it’s something that is often overlooked, so I think it important to draw attention to it — unlike, say, health reforms or walking, which are *always* cited.

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  3. 3. Adrian B 2:56 pm 05/17/2013

    The intial comment is based on the erroneous assumptions too many people have about NYC. First, almost 20 percent of NYC is open space parkland, making it one of the greenest cities in the US, if not in the world. Those facts are documented in the Trust for Public Land’s “ParkScore,” which can be found on the TPL website http://parkscore.tpl.org/. Second, Mayor Bloomberg has invested nearly $5 billion in improving existing parks and adding hundreds of acres of new parks, trails and open spaces. As a result, there are many more opportunities to get fit and to experience the psychological benefits of green spaces described by Maria Konnikova in her excellent article. Finally the combination of other public health policies, including banning smoking in all public buildings (and public spaces in private buildings), restaurants and parks, along with a park system that has been tremendously expanded and improved, thanks to publi-private partnerships, have all contributed to a dramatic improvement in life expectancy in NYC.

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  4. 4. ksajosh88 8:07 pm 05/22/2013

    Wonderful article from start to finish! Vanity truly is the only thing that can trump relentless greed.

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