When it comes to finding somewhere to live, "good views" might not be a top priority, especially for city-dwellers. We'd all love to wake up to the Grand Tetons, but not if that means waking up in a micro-apartment with a kitchen-slash-bathroom that only floods when it rains. But, maybe we should all be pickier (and, you know, wealthy), for the sake of our mental health. According to a new study, published in the journal Health and Place, urbanites who can draw back their curtains and see "blue space" (i.e., water) have significantly lower levels of distress than their neighboring plebes. Gazing at a brick wall, or even green space, doesn't share the same relationship with psychological status.
Going into the study, researchers from Michigan State University and The University of Canterbury predicted that people with views of nature — green or blue — would report better mental health. Per the study, green space "tends to include open areas of vegetation (parks, sports fields) and conservation areas (forests), but can also include backyard gardens, farms or any other space predominantly covered in vegetation. Blue space includes water bodies (lakes, oceans, rivers) but rarely includes human-made features (water fountains or sculptures)."
Previous research, authors wrote, offers three ways in which ocean and mountain views help people feel calm, happy and stable. For one thing, access to nature can (but doesn't always) facilitate physical activity. Working up a sweat is strongly associated with mental wellbeing. Also, natural settings increase opportunities for social interaction, which plenty of studies have linked to living longer, less disease-plagued lives.
Finally, blue and green spaces reduce stress simply by serving as calming backdrops. Natural environments don't come with car horns, flashing lights, wafting street meat or other sources of sensory stimulation. Living by the sea is relaxing. But, more than that, study authors explained, it's been theorized that humans evolved to prefer natural environments (over man-made ones) because they supply resources necessarily to survival. In other words, you can't till the land in Times Square.
Other studies have shown the mental-health benefits of gazing into God's green earth. For example, UK researchers found that prisoners with non-natural views made "sick calls" 24 percent more often than prisoners with views of farm-land.
The current study involved residents of Wellington, New Zealand. Participants filled out self-assessments on mental health and researchers used digital mapping software to determine how easily participants could see green and blue spaces based on their residential addresses. "Visibility" wasn't merely a function of proximity; the mapping program let researchers account for topographical features and man-made structures that might obstruct participants' ability to see nature.
After researchers accounted for income, age, sex and other lifestyle factors, nature-views did correspond to lower levels of psychological distress — but only for participants who saw blue. Participants who lived in sight of water reported feeling significantly less distressed than everyone else.
Why blue? Well, in this case, "blue" basically translated to "sparkling ocean," as New Zealand is a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Other work in New Zealand, researchers wrote, "has highlighted how island spaces offer unique settings for the therepeutic benefits of blue space." Would living in an apartment overlooking the Gowanus Canal (Brooklyn's very own superfund site), or even a cabin built into the banks of the Mississippi River, foster the same sense of calm? TBD.
Additionally, in cities, green space might more often mean a patchy dog run underneath a highway than purple mountain majesties. Researchers also surmised that people might react differently to living beside "native or high-quality vegetation" (read: real nature) than a dinky sports field. Or, it's possible that too much green space in a city might actually cut off light, airflow and space, making people feel suffocated rather than carefree.
But they're just floating explanations. To better understand the psychological difference between ocean and mountain views, further research needs to explore different types of green and blue spaces.
Round two: Anything vs. the Great Gowanus. Winner: Anything.