There is much to love about the open space movement. Overcoming "nature deficit disorder" has been linked to weight loss, increased test scores, and decreased medication dependency.
"Wonderful things happen when people get onto the land and start enjoying it," says Miriam Avins, founder of Baltimore Greenspace. "There are health benefits from being out there and getting your hands in the dirt. And people who pass by see something green and beautiful."
Here are six key benefits of creating more open space and taking advantage of it.
1. Vacant lots become parks and gardens
Like many cities since the Great Recession, Baltimore has lost a significant amount of population. The city is home to more than 15,000 vacant lots, many of which formerly held houses demolished as uninhabitable.
Nobody was happy about the wasted land, and in 2007, Avins decided to do something about it. She founded Baltimore Greenspace, a nonprofit organization that acquires vacant land and turns it over to communities to use as open spaces. Residents have come up with all kinds of creative uses, including bike paths, community gardens, and horseshoe pits.
In addition to the benefits for people, open space helps filter storm water and provides a place for birds to go. "It's amazing how little you need to do before animals return," Avins says. And as an added benefit, property values rise when there's a well-tended green space.
"It's good for people and good for the planet," Avins says. "It's also one of the cheapest ways troubled neighborhoods can make a difference for themselves."
2. City dwellers overcome "nature deficit disorder"
As of 2008, for the first time ever, more of the world's population lives in cities than in the countryside, says Richard Louv, author of the best-selling book "The Last Child in the Woods" who coined the term "nature deficit disorder." Louv says that spending less time outdoors can lead to behavioral problems.
"Conservation is no longer enough," Louv says. "We're running out of wild space, so now we need to create nature." That can be achieved by changing landscaping from lawns that need to be mowed to native species that feed the food chain.
3. Increased weight loss, energy and mental well being
A study of adults in a weight-loss program showed that those who exercised outdoors improved more than those who ran on a treadmill indoors. And in another study, exercising in natural environments was shown to make the participants feel more engaged, decrease tension and depression and increase energy. Participants also reported greater enjoyment and satisfaction with outdoor activity and declared a greater intention to repeat the activity, according to the Environmental Science and Technology Journal abstract.
4. Increased test scores for children
Though few long-term studies have been done, many shorter studies point to nature's benefits, Louv says. A study of 900 Massachusetts schools showed that test scores rose at schools that had green space and school gardens or took kids on nature-oriented field trips.
Daphne Miller, a practicing family physician and a fellow at the Berkeley Food Institute, is so convinced of green space's benefits that she writes prescriptions for walks in parks. She's been doing it for 10 years, and patients who participate become noticeably fitter and say they feel better.
"It's rare to find a human being who doesn't feel better after a nature experience," she says. "It seems to be true for everything from attention deficit disorder to depression to lung problems — being out in nature is good for you."
No one is sure exactly how it works. In the past decade, science has been pushing beyond studies that show benefits exist to those who attempt to quantify them. MRI and PET scans are being done to find out whether there is a dose/response relationship.
For her own prescriptions, Miller does a computer search based on patients' location and provides specific routes to complete. "It tells them where to go and how many times to go a week. It's very specific — the same as it would be for an antibiotics prescription," she says.
Several theories exist to explain our connection to green space. One is the "attention restoration theory" developed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, which says that the parts of our brain that get burned out — by tasks such as staring at a screen — are restored when we get into a natural environment.
Spending time in a natural setting also helps develop awareness. Louv says military studies have shown that soldiers able to sense problems in advance tend to come from one of two environments: the inner city, where they may need to stay alert to survive, or rural areas, where they spend time outdoors and are attuned to the nuances of the natural setting.
Awareness of the outdoors and nature is a key to good health, Miller believes. She calls it "eco-literacy."
"As a doctor, I look at eco-literacy as a vital sign, especially in children," she says. "If they know where their food comes from and how birds pollinate, then I know they're going to be healthier adults."