Green space can reduce loneliness

One in four Australians feel lonely on three or more days a week. Research from the University of Wollongong and UNSW has found that people’s odds of loneliness could fall by up to half if cities hit 30% green space targets.

Their longitudinal study, just published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, finds adults in neighbourhoods where at least 30% of nearby land was parks, reserves and woodlands had 26% lower odds of becoming lonely compared to their peers in areas with less than 10% green space.

For people living on their own, the associations were even greater – in areas with 30% or more green space the odds of becoming lonely halved.

The study used data from the HILDA Survey on 6,766 adults in cities across Australia who were not lonely in 2013. We assessed association between urban green space availability within 1.6km of home (a commonly used “walkable” distance in public health and urban planning) at the start and the cumulative incidence of loneliness reported four years later, which was about 12% overall. We took into account competing explanations for loneliness, such as differences in age, income, employment and disability.

The study focused on publicly accessible green space categorised as parkland by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. This green space data focuses on discrete green spaces where gatherings and chance encounters with neighbours might occur. This meant the analysis excluded private gardens, which offer alternative spaces where people might gather but are not always available (e.g. for people living in apartments).

Benefits stronger for people living alone

Loneliness can affect anyone – it’s the state of feeling alone, not simply being alone. You can feel perfectly content and connected while in solitude. You can also feel lonely in a crowded room.

The study found the odds of becoming lonely doubled among adults living alone compared with those in a couple. Lone-person households have become more common in many countries. One in four Australian homes were lone-person households in the 2016 Census.

The odds of becoming lonely went down 52% among adults living alone in areas with more than 30% green space compared with those in areas with less than 10%. In other words, meeting urban greening targets could be especially important for the large numbers of people who live alone.

Why reducing loneliness matters

Reducing loneliness has many potential impacts on health. Increasing evidence links feeling lonely with increased risks of depression, heart disease, inflammation, dementia and death.

Research indicates there is no one-size-fits-all treatment for loneliness. Some have called for a “precision health” approach using machine learning of biomarker data to afford new understandings of loneliness.

Does more green space equal more social contact?

International evidence affirms the importance of protecting nature for supporting population health and for minimising climate change. Evidence in Australia indicates urban greening – and urban reforestation in particular – could also help to reduce risks of psychological distress, lack of sleep, cardiometabolic diseases, subjective memory complaints and maybe even dementia. Reducing loneliness might be an important way in which contact with green space produces these potential benefits.

A possible mechanism to explain the link between green space and loneliness is the sharing of familiar natural settings that help to enhance mood and interrupt rumination. This is thought to provide collective relief from social anxieties and enable people of all ages to play and connect with each other in meaningful, life-affirming ways.

These opportunities can be much rarer in less restorative environments, such as parts of cities with few trees and sparsely vegetated areas. This research indicates that this is more often the case in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities in Australian cities. Urban greening strategies must address this disparity to help reduce population health inequities.

This is an excerpt from an article originally published in The Conversation by Thomas Astell-Burt, a Professor of Population Health and Environmental Data Science at the University of Wollongong and Xiaoqi Feng, Associate Professor in Urban Health and Environment at UNSW. It is based on a study led by the authors, who wish to acknowledge their co-authors, Terry Hartig, Simon Eckermann, Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, Anne McMunn and Howard Frumkin.