Most of these studies, however, have focused on the effects of public green space and not privatWellbeing. Private garden spaces are the most accessible green spaces during a period when many people stay at home because of COVID-19 restrictions. Do these small green spaces also benefit our mental health in the same way?
My study, which was conducted before the current pandemic began, has found that plants in front yards (front gardens) are associated with a lower level of stress. We chose to study front gardens because developers are paving front gardens. Front gardens also serve as a link between the private and public worlds. They are visible to passersby and neighbours so that they can contribute to the well-being of the community.
In Salford, Greater Manchester, we evaluated the physiological and psychological stress levels of previously bare-front gardens before and after they were planted with plants. We measured the cortisol levels (also known as “the stress-hormone”) in participants’ saliva as well as their self-reported stress. The participants ranged from age 21 to 86, and 64% were female.
Two planters were added with ornamental plants, including petunias (snowy mespilus), violas, and rosemary. We also included clematis or dwarf juniper trees. The plants were selected for their easy maintenance and familiarity with most UK residents. The 42 residents were also given compost, self-watering containers, a can of water, and a trellis. The team of researchers planted all the gardens to ensure they were all similar. The participants were instructed on how to water and maintain their plants and were allowed to add additional plants or features. The wellbeing was designed to be as low-maintenance as possible.
We found that, over a year, the presence of plants in previously barren front gardens led to a 6% reduction in residents’ perceived stress levels. This scale is used to measure the level of stress that people feel in certain situations. It takes into consideration feelings of control and their ability to cope. The 6% reduction is equivalent to eight mindfulness sessions over the long term.
Also, we found statistically significant differences in the salivary cortisol pattern of participants. Cortisol, the main stress hormone in our body, can trigger our “fight-or-flight” response and regulate sleep and energy. We need cortisol to stay healthy. Concentrations are highest in the morning and fall at night. This pattern is disrupted when our bodies are stressed. At the start of the study, we found that only 24% of residents displayed a healthy cortisol pattern. Three months after the addition of plants, this increased to 53%. This suggests improved mental health among these participants.
Petunias are just one type of plant that participants added to their front gardens. Sebastian Janicki/ Shutterstock
The participants’ interviews explain the reasons for these changes. Residents felt that the gardens influenced their life positively. Strong themes emerged around a more positive attitude in general, pride, and a greater motivation to improve the local environment. They were also a relaxing place.
The factors listed above are likely to increase people’s resilience in stressful situations. They have also, over time, had an impact on their physiological responses to stress as measured by cortisol levels. The addition of just a few small plants to the front yard made a big difference in their environment as well as the surrounding street.
These well-being benefits are based on two environmental psychological theories: Attention Restoration Theory and Stress Reduction Theory. The two psycho-evolutionary models are based on Wilson’s Biophilia Hypothesis, which states that humans have a natural affinity for the environment.
The attention restoration theory suggests that spending time in natural environments can help us focus on tasks that need effort and focused attention. The “brainpower” required to spend time in nature is reduced since we do not need to concentrate as hard on tasks or stimuli nor suppress distractions. The natural world also offers us the chance to reflect. According to the stress reduction theory, natural environments elicit instantaneous emotions and less negative feelings than non-natural environments.
The results of our study show that even small green spaces can reduce stress. This may be an important consideration in local planning, health and social care, and well-being. It is important to integrate the built environment with environmental and health concerns.
This project’s findings also support the social case to create more green spaces and gardens on the street. Biophilic design standards, environmentally focused urban strategies, and walkable street initiatives are all examples of ways to achieve this. Landscape architects and other professionals who work with green spaces can have a significant impact on people’s perceptions, their health, and their well-being.