The Privilege of a Pandemic Nature View

Green surroundings improve mental health—for those lucky enough to have them

By Molly Glick

December 24, 2020


Photo by SasinParaksa/iStock

As the United States reels from its largest COVID-19 spike yet, large swaths of Americans are once again confined to their homesAfter nearly a year of social isolation, the toll on our mental health is clear: People of all ages have experienced depression, anxiety, and stress. Unsurprisingly, the more isolated you are, the worse the outcome. 

Fortunately, gazing at nature can ease the psychological distress triggered by lockdowns. While decades of research have confirmed that green views benefit our physical and mental health, they’re especially important amid today’s unprecedented social isolation. Flora-filled window views can boost self-esteem and happiness while reducing negative outcomes like anxiety and lonelinessaccording to a study published in Ecological Applications last month.

These findings are based on a June 2020 survey of 3,000 Tokyo residents. Respondents were asked about their mental health status, socioeconomic factors like annual household income, and the extent of their nature interactions—both within neighborhood greenspaces and from window views. The key finding: The “less immediate” experience of peeking at greenery from indoors actually provided greater mental health benefits than time spent outside, says study researcher Masashi Soga, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo who studies human-nature interactions. 

Soga credits the fact that most Tokyo residents stayed home and refrained from visiting nearby parks over the survey period. Stillaround 80 percent of participants reaped mental health benefits from the foliage outside their windows, reporting better outcomes than those who lack it.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the importance of nature experiences for human health and well-being because it has caused the majority of people to experience higher levels of stress and fear,” Soga says. “Natural environments might act as a refuge in which they can foster psychological stability.”

While it’s difficult to say for certain whether the trees within eyeshot aid our emotional well-beingthe study makes a case for the health benefits of urban greenery. And in the United States, it’s a privilege that’s unequally distributed: Within major cities, wealthier, college-educated residents are more likely to live near parks and vegetation in general. 

Racial disparities also exist in green access, varying by city. For example, a 2019 study by the University of British Columbia found that “people from Hispanic backgrounds had less access to vegetation in Chicago and Seattle, while people identifying as African American had less access to green spaces in Chicago and St. Louis.” This means that the pros of nearby urban parks—like stress relief, social cohesion, and improved air quality—aren’t as readily available to communities long impacted by environmental racism and discriminatory real estate practices. 

The pandemic has called closer attention to the “silver lining” of patches of urban nature but should also serve as a wake-up call to distribute it more equitably, says Lorien Nesbitt, an assistant professor of forestry at the University of British Columbia. Nesbitt, who coauthored the 2019 study, advocates for a dose of greenery in all residents’ daily lives.

“The issue maybe isn’t so much in figuring out who has green views and who hasn’t, but in trying to figure out, How we can give everyone green views?” Nesbitt says. “If we are needing to stay in our homes, how do we do that in a healthy way that allows us to have contact with nature?” 

The spread of COVID-19 has also underscored the mistreatment of essential workers, who are often unable to work from home and commonly lack protections like hazard pay, medical leave, and affordable health care. In addition to these basic rights, essential workers also deserve the advantages of environmental immersion. 

The recent fervor for biophilic office design—which encourages a human-nature connection in workspaces—could certainly help, but it’s usually applied to posh corporate headquarters filled with “living walls” and drenched in natural light. Over the past decade, though, a number of hospitals have hopped on the trend in the interest of patients and round-the-clock employees. 

But flora access alone won’t remediate common stressors like financial insecurity, says Viniece Jennings, an assistant professor of public health at Agnes Scott College who has studied urban green space and community well-being. It’s important to examine the roots of people’s anxiety, which frequently arises from income inequality and racial discrimination and impacts people’s mental and physical health. Advocates of health equity therefore seek an equal opportunity to maintain one’s health, regardless of socioeconomic status.

The recent University of Tokyo paper, for example, found that a higher income was another significant factor in “increased self‐esteem, life satisfaction, and happiness,” along with “decreased loneliness and depression and anxiety.” It’s therefore hard to differentiate between the effects of a comfortable salary versus nearby trees, a common issue in such subjective research.

“The benefits that we receive from natural spaces can be a part of the solution,” Jennings says. “But there are so many other areas in society where we have to remember the value of addressing these stressors in order for psychological well-being to be accessible to all, not just those who can afford it.”

More immediate nature experiences are also shaped by broader systemic inequalities. Parks that serve people of color are half as large and almost five times as crowded as those in mostly white areas, which poses a challenge in the era of social distancing. Visitation rates also differ: People of color and members of low-income communities are less likely to visit and feel safe in outdoor spaces, which occurs in part due to the lingering effects of segregation and threats of violence.  

Nesbitt’s research has found that neighborhood tree distribution is even more subjective to education level and race, with particularly low amounts surrounding Latino residents and people without a high school diploma. 

While expanding a neighborhood’s foliage may seem like a simple answer to these disparities, projects like rain gardens and greenways can aid the process of gentrification and displace longtime residents. Instead, Lorien Nesbitt says, policymakers and developers must get creative and prioritize denser, more affordable housing within walking access to nature.  

Truly equitable housing ensures that residents can remain within their communities during economic hardships like the COVID-19 pandemic, Jennings says. It’s important to any neighborhood’s social cohesion, a bond that she found can grow within area green spaces. “Parks are an extension of the communities that are already there,” Jennings says.