Just a few plants in a front garden give a measurable boost to wellbeing.

When plants in containers were added to small paved-over front gardens in Salford, residents were less stressed. Importantly, this study is the first to scientifically measure the change. The drop in stress levels was not just based on what participants said, but on the levels of cortisol recorded in their bodies. If they remain too high for too long, cortisol can do harm and has been linked with anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, memory loss and concentration lapses.

mhaw21 logo landscape England

More and more evidence is accumulating about the benefits to people of green spaces, gardens and gardening. But this Salford study is the first to show a direct physiological link between people’s wellbeing and the presence of plants in their front garden.

How was it done?

A team of researchers from several universities and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) worked with two housing associations in Salford, recruiting people living in Victorian terraced houses with small paved-over front gardens and no plants. All the residents who agreed to take part had their cortisol measured via saliva swabs. Then half received two large self-watering containers planted up with a mix of shrubs, climbers, bulbs and bedding plants, plus the option of a small tree. The other half, for comparison, received none the first year but got their containers and plants the second year.

The experiment started in Spring 2017. Residents could look after their plants themselves and were encouraged to do so, but did not have to. The RHS team was available for advice.

Later in the year all had more cortisol tests, and the following Spring it was all repeated with the second group. Both groups also filled in regular questionnaires about their health and wellbeing.

What were the results?

Residents’ stress levels, as measured by cortisol tests, were significantly lower at the beginning of Autumn than they had been before the plants arrived. This was supported by residents written responses in the questionnaires. They said they felt more motivated, relaxed, had more of a sense of pride in their home and the area, and were more cheerful coming and going. Among the things they said:

“One of the big things I’ve noticed is when I come back from work and see all the daffodils, it switches me into home mode. It’s like a buffer zone between work and home.” (Male participant, 37)

“It’s lovely. It really cheers me up, honestly…. I love nature, and I see so little of it. So every time I get out of the house, I get a little wave of pride. It gives me a lift, a little swing in my step. Every time.” (Female participant, 51)

“It’s just nice to see the different colours. Otherwise, it looks dead bare. It made me feel brighter in myself.” (Female participant, 86)

20210509 Curzon Road c Christine Eborall

 

Those who had mental health difficulties said they felt more motivated by looking after the plants. Some of their neighbours who had not taken part went out and bought plants and containers for their own homes, and there was an increased sense of community in the area:

“It makes it look like your area has not just been left to rot.” (Male participant, 40)

20210509 Curzon Road 7 c Christine Eborall

This is an important study because it shows, for the first time, that plants in front gardens really can improve people’s wellbeing and reduce stress. It only takes a few well-chosen and colourful plants to achieve this. And that is even more important now, because more people are depressed and have mental health problems due to the Covid pandemic.

Furthermore, it is the front garden that has this pivotal role. People leave and come home through it, and neighbours and passers-by see it from the pavement. In Salford even the neighbours got involved and the community felt more together.

This experiment has highlighted how important front gardens really are, often neglected or just used as car parking spaces. We need everyone to recognise this, stop obliterating front gardens with paving and concrete, and restore as many as possible to growing plants.

The aim should be for all houses, apartment and residential blocks to have planted front gardens. People really do benefit from them.

 

 

Reference

It made me feel brighter in myself”- The health and well-being impacts of a residential front garden horticultural intervention, Lauriane Suyin Chalmin-Pui, Jenny Roe, Alistair Griffiths, Nina Smyth, Timothy Heaton, Andy Clayden and Ross Cameron, Landscape and Urban Planning, 205 (2021) 103958.

Whoever wins the London Mayoral election, or indeed anyone holding a political position covering the capital after this May’s vote, should be aware 88% of Londoners agree politicians should promote the London National Park City to make our capital greener, healthier and wilder.

Millfields Park Hackney c Hackney Council copy

London National Park City "Aster" mown into the grass at Millfields Park. Photo courtesy of Hackney Council.

London National Park City commissioned YouGov to conduct a survey of a  representative sample of the Capital’s communities in March and April this year. Later this year, we will be reviewing politicians progress in delivering against their manifestos, especially commitments to improving green and public spaces.

  • YouGov’s survey records the expectations and desires of Londoners, with 94% of Londoners wanting our parks, public gardens, waterways and open spaces protected. More than just protection, they want our shared spaces to be of a high quality, to attract diverse users and to be safe.
  • Increasing London’s green, blue, public and wild open spaces and improving the quality, safety and diversity of existing spaces is important to 89% of participants.
  • 87% want politicians to use London’s National Park City status and identity to inspire more people to get outdoors to enjoy London’s open spaces.
  • 84% of respondents agree politicians should create a London National Park City strategy linking transport, health, education and the environment.

By adopting and delivering the five key returns above (in bold text), politicians will reduce air pollution, boost physical and mental health while reducing the burden on the NHS of treating conditions as diverse as asthma, depression, diabetes and obesity, simultaneously addressing public levels of anxiety and stress.

Ensuring the quality of existing green spaces and parks is improved and that new spaces of equal quality are created (and that all of it is maintained) will boost nature, making London more attractive for wildlife and people. Our air and waterways would be cleaner and there would be space for urban food production.

All of this would create new jobs and encourage creativity to develop new technologies, occupations and opportunities benefitting Londoners and local economies, reducing our dependency on some imported goods and services.

Quality of life burned brightly in the results, but safety in parks and public spaces concerned many survey participants, especially those who have experienced sexual, racial or other harassment or assault in public places.

003. NHS c Paul Meyler

Photo credit Paul Meyler.

Londoners want walking, running and cycling routes through and around the capital, linked with clean and efficient public transport. They want parks and gardens full of buzzing pollinators, colourful plants and singing birds. It should not be a surprise to see hedgehogs on their nightly rambles; clouds of starlings coming to roost in our parks and on our commons; or seals basking on the tidal beaches of the Thames along the Southbank.

Politicians at City Hall and in local authorities have been sent the details of our survey and have been urged to act on the findings. Voters of all ages and backgrounds were keen to see the adoption of long-term strategies for green space encompassing transport, education, health and energy.

London National Park City is one of the many organisations supporting A More Natural Capital campaign, with a shared agenda for change published in December 2020. The findings of the YouGov survey reflect public expectations underpinning our collective call for politicians to put nature at the centre of planning for the capital’s future.

It is time to recognise the important role our green and blue spaces play as vital components of public infrastructure and to invest in them accordingly. Anyone serious about meeting the UK Government’s commitment of slashing emissions 78% by 2035 cannot do it without this approach.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1051 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 30th March and 1st April 2021. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all London adults (aged 18+).

 

Schools’ have broken, or are about to, for Easter and some of the Covid rules have eased enough to allow groups of six or two households to gather outdoors and for organised team sports to resume outdoors. Full details on the lockdown changes can be found on the Government’s webpages.

London still has a wealth of opportunities to enjoy and most of them are free, especially if it is one of the four thousand or more parks or public green spaces listed on the GoParks website. The listings include links to the London Garden’s Trust historic database or to the wildlife records office for London detailing what plants, bugs or other natural attractions you can discover.

England remains under lockdown, so you must stay at home, leaving only where permitted by law. You can be fined £200 minimum if do not follow the coronavirus rules. The two metre physical distancing rules remain in place so try to respect others personal space, especially where it gets crowded along narrow paths, bridges entrances or outside take-aways and other venues.

You can leave your home to exercise or to visit a public outdoor place for outdoor recreation, such as a coffee on a bench or a picnic in a park. You should minimise the time you spend outside your home, and you should not travel outside your local area, and must follow the guidance on how to stop the spread of coronavirus at all times.

Park activities c Victoria Stewart

Walking, sitting, cycling, playing football or running. Time to get more active together outdoors (c) Victoria Stewart

 

If you are planning to meet five friends or another household, there is one essential website you should remember. Lockdownloo.com is the most up to date service listing toilets not closed by the pandemic. Take water to keep hydrated and do not forget your mask, hand sanitiser and to let someone know where you are going and when you will be back.

One of the new lockdown changes is that outdoor sports facilities and team sports like football and tennis can resume. Check facilities are open before setting out as many still have restrictions. London’s outdoor swimming pools and wild swimming venues are re-opening; most with booked entry and one way swimming in force. Heated pools include Covent Garden’s Oasis pool, London Fields lido in Hackney, Hampton Pool and the lido’s at Park Road in Crouch End and Hornfair Park’s Charlton lido.

There are several unheated options too. These include Brockwell and Hillingdon lidos, and pools at Tooting Bec, Parliament Hill, Pools on the Park in Richmond and of course the Serpentine and Hampstead Heath ponds (nine degrees Centigrade on Monday 29th).

Several parks and nature reserves have set-up Easter nature trails where you can enjoy a stroll under trees full of blossom and catkins, or displays of daffodils, crocuses and other spring blooms which are starting to appear. Wildlife is emerging from its winter slumber rather like us staggering from our lockdown homes for some exercise or to clear our minds. Look out for frog and toad spawn. The first will appear like clumps of transparent rice pudding while toad spawn will be in strings. There may even be some tadpoles to enjoy. Migratory sand martins have started to return to nest in London from their winter break in Africa. Swallows and swifts will follow.

Art lovers could enjoy works by Anish Kapoor, Abigail Fallis and Anthony Gormley along London’s first dedicated art walk, The Line sculpture Trail. It takes you through some of London’s most historic areas and some of the newest. The route runs between Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and The O2, following the waterways through Three Mills Island (home of the MasterChef studios) and the line of the Greenwich Meridian. You can explore The Line virtually online too!

Thomas J Prices bronze silicon statue called Reaching Out depicting isolation and connectedness c Tim Webb

Thomas J Price's bronze silicon statue called Reaching Out depicting isolation and connectedness (c) Tim Webb

 

London National Park City’s new Wiki pages offer several top ten walks or attractions and lots more from street art and wildlife to the best places for kite flying or star gazing during International Dark Sky Week (Sunday, April 19 Sunday, April 26). Lots to see, discover and do by yourself, in a group of six or with one other household.

There are thousands of public paths and walking or cycling routes through and around London. Some are signposted like the London Loop, while others like canal pathways are obvious. They can become narrow and busy so may not be the most attractive option at busy times. Always respect others.

London has more than a hundred city farms and community gardens slowly re-opening with a variety of attractions from chickens and goats to donkeys and sheep. Many have take-away drinks and snacks available too and most will be in desperate need of income having been closed for so long.

Feed your mind, meet your ancestors and get fit with a walk in one of the capital’s magnificent seven garden cemeteries established by the Victorians. Kensal Green is the oldest. The other six are West Norwood, Highgate, Abney Park, Brompton, Nunhead and Tower Hamlets. All are a fascinating mix of monuments to the famous and the unknown who built London and shaped society, plus fine  architecture, sculptures and nature.

If you want to immerse yourself in nature or try a bit of forest  bathing, Epping Forest is our largest woodland but there are others around London, and many have a few cycle routes, walking routes and picnic areas. Make sure you do not leave any litter.

While we are celebrating spring and all things outdoors, please remember, we are not out of the pandemic woods yet! England is still under lockdown. Only going out for essential activities or exercise. The GoParks interactive map can be searched by borough or postcode to find parks and green spaces near you. Covid remains a major threat we must all beat, even if school pupils are on holiday and restless. When you do go out, stay local, stay distanced and stay well.

 

At the end of February 2020 I became a mother to a beautiful baby boy. It was truly a magical experience as well as one of the most challenging jobs I had done to date; I was responsible for keeping a little person alive.  I found myself surviving on little sleep as well as riding the wave of a myriad of emotions. A few weeks into motherhood the UK entered its first lockdown and overnight my support network diminished along with the closure of a number of services.  I was overwhelmed with thoughts and just like everyone else I had to navigate this new world with my new born.

As the shutters of the world we once knew came down I found myself drawn to daily walk into the woods and parks where I was encapsulated by the wonders of the natural world, which helped bring calm, presence and hope in what seemed a chaotic and socially distant world.

By stepping into nature I enjoyed the beautiful fresh air, which rejuvenated me and made me feel anew. Often we can get stuck in our mind with the same thoughts on a continual loop with no clarity of thought or perspective. I found walking in nature gave me perspective, fresh ideas and often the realisation that it is not worth sweating the small stuff as things have a way of working themselves out. I mean look at the natural world everything orchestrates beautifully irrespective of the apparent chaos around us.

Sandeep and son

As all the baby classes were closed I looked to nature as the great educator. The diversity of species, plant life, season, colour, texture, I mean the list just goes on. I had volumes of information to show my son but I only saw this when I stopped, looked and became present. By stepping into nature and stepping away from social media I was able to appreciate the different sounds, smells and sights that I often paid little attention too.

My walk refreshed me mentally as well physically; I was amazed at the number of calories I burned on a walk to the local park. The most wonderful element were the smiles and hellos I encountered from people who longed for some form of social connection in a world where we were locked away from our nearest and dearest.  There appeared to be a mutual appreciation of the beauty that surrounded us and as result people seemed happier and more connected.

 London has a huge array of beautiful green spaces rich in biodiversity, which needs to be protected. London being a National Park City means that there is a community of people working together to look after and improve green spaces so that future generations can enjoy it but we too can play our part and make London greener, wilder and healthier in our unique way in our local area whether that be starting a buggy fit  or a walking group.

As the seasons changed, the seeds blossomed into flowers and caterpillars transformed into beautiful butterflies I learned that change is an inevitable feature of life. Yes the life we once knew seems a distant memory but as nature shows we are probably on the cusp of a new way maybe even better way of living and working.

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