Be Well’s seminar series to feature a presentation by Assistant Professor Colleen Reid on Oct. 5, where she will discuss the question and the complexity of the answer
In March 2020, institutions and businesses shut down to curb the spread of COVID-19 and social distancing became the “new normal.” While staying home aimed to keep our bodies healthy, it also coincided with declining mental health.
In an upcoming seminar, “Is green space always beneficial for health?”, Colleen Reid, an assistant professor of geography, will present research findings and lingering questions about how exposure to green spaces, which are areas of vegetation, such as parks, gardens and planted trees, can boost physical and mental health.
Reid’s presentation is set for 11 a.m. Oct. 5 virtually. The virtual event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.
“There's all this research saying that green spaces are important for health, and (researchers have) linked it to almost everything” regarding mental and physical well-being, Reid says. “But there's a lot of nuance to it. There's tons of unanswered questions, (and) we don't know why it's beneficial.”
Reid started researching green space and its potential health benefits while studying how people’s well-being was affected by extreme heat due to climate change. Since trees absorb carbon and provide shade, green spaces populated with trees can act as a “protective (measure), or an adaptation, that can be done at the municipal level to try and cool environments in urban areas.”
This led Reid to outline five dimensions of green space that contribute to our health: abundance, visibility, quality, access and usage.
Abundance, Reid notes, “is what’s measured by satellites,” such as “how much photosynthesis is happening in (one) place.”
Although important, the abundance of green space alone doesn’t decide how much a person’s well-being is improved. What also matters is visibility and quality, which are “more ground level (and) what you see, which is definitely different than what satellites are going to measure.”
There’s also access, which “could be physical proximity, but it also could be belonging. Do you feel like the park is a place you can go to and feel safe in? Or it could be about private vs. public green spaces. You could live right next to a golf course that's private.”
Finally, there’s usage: Do you actually spend time using green space? Or do you normally pass it by? According to Reid, these dimensions are important in measuring how much green spaces can affect our health.
Along with examining these five dimensions, Reid wants to highlight how the perception of green space also can influence our well-being.
“We think that we're the first ones to look at environmental perception (and) identity,” Reid notes about her research. “Do you consider yourself an environmentalist? Do you consider yourself an outdoors person?” These attributes can affect how one perceives their exposure to green space, Reid says.
“Now we're trying to use that information to better understand: Is it perception or objective measures of green space that influence your health?” she says.
eid thinks many questions about green space and wellness remain unanswered. When COVID-19 emerged, she saw an opportunity to test how a major stressor such as the pandemic could be alleviated by people’s perception of green spaces.
In a study conducted in Denver during fall 2020, Reid and her colleagues administered survey questions on stress, depression and anxiety, and found people reported more symptoms of mental illnesses during the pandemic.
The survey found that 33% of respondents reported using green space more during the pandemic than they did before.
Furthermore, respondents who indicated “higher quality of green space near where they lived had lower levels of anxiety” compared to those who reported that they did not perceive green space near their homes to be high quality.
Similarly, Reid’s study found that “people who (perceived) having more green space around, or at least (felt) they were using green space nearby, had lower depression and anxiety, particularly during this very stressful event.”
When Reid presents her seminar, she hopes the Boulder community will better understand “that we need to put more green space, whether that's street trees or parks, into urban areas, particularly in areas that don't have it right now. That can be beneficial from a carbon-sequestration standpoint, as well as a mental health benefit.”
Reid’s presentation is part of the Let's CU Well seminar series, an appendage of the College of Arts and Sciences’ wellness initiative, Be Well. Be Well’s mission is to address the balance between home and school life in the Boulder community.