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Why open space matters for mental health

By Carine Lai, researcher, WYNG Foundation

A few years ago, Liza Chan, a master’s student at Utrecht University asked Instagram Pier users what the place meant to them. Someone replied it was “poetic” because you could get close to the sea without the separation of a railing. Another person described visiting it as something of a “spiritual experience.” While these words might sound like romantic nonsense, they get at something backed by scientific evidence: that public open space is good for mental health.

Living in a city is stressful. Compared to rural areas, city dwellers worldwide have a 40% higher risk for depression, over 20% higher risk for anxiety, and double the risk for schizophrenia. Cities are also places of great inequality. In 2016 (the most recent data available), Hong Kong’s Gini Coefficient was 0.54, which is on par with Mozambique, the 7th most unequal country in the world. According to British researchers Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, living in a highly unequal society is inherently more stressful. As money and status become more important, poor people are especially affected because they constantly compare themselves to the rich, and because society treats them with little respect. Inequality also erodes societal trust and cooperation, contributing to social isolation, crime, and political conflict. 

Yet according to the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, green public open space provides a protective effect. High quality public open space fulfills many functions. It encourages social interaction—just think about retirees playing chess in the park—and promotes a sense of community. It gives people space to exercise, which according to the American Psychological Association, benefits mental as well as physical health. It buffers noise pollution which has long-term negative effects on cognition, concentration, and sleep.

There is also some evidence to support the biophilia hypothesis, which posits that humans have an evolutionary need to connect with nature. Researchers have done studies measuring people’s blood pressure, heart rate, brain waves and cortisol levels (a stress hormone), and numerous studies have found that when people have more exposure to natural environments, they have lower stress levels. 

International studies have found that when people live near green and “blue” spaces (i.e. near the water), they report fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, and feelings of loneliness. Children show fewer symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and fewer behavioural problems. A 2019 Hong Kong study of older adults found that visiting beaches and waterfronts was linked to better wellbeing and less depression.

In Hong Kong where land is at a premium, setting aside land for public space may seem like an unaffordable luxury, but it is not. It is essential. Pierfrancesco Celada’s hundreds of photographs of people sitting, running, walking, goofing off, dancing and taking selfies show us one thing: that Instagram Pier provided something unique that Hong Kongers really needed. 


Image courtesy of Pierfrancesco Celada, Instagrampier project