Study finds transforming vacant urban lots into green spaces could reduce stress, improve health

For all you city-dwellers out there, next time you walk by a vacant lot that’s been refurbished with green gardens and budding trees, take note of your heart rate. You might find the pleasantly green view caused a welcome moment of relaxation and lowered stress.

At least that’s what researchers found in a new study published this week in the American Journal of Public Health. In monitoring the ambulatory heart of rate of study participants in Philadelphia before and after they walked by vacant urban lots that had received a “greening remediation treatment,” researchers found that seeing a greened lot decreased people's heart rate significantly more than seeing a regular vacant lot.

To conduct the study, researchers used a heart rate monitor with GPS to measure participants’ stress response as they went on a planned walk through their respective neighborhoods. Vacant lots in one neighborhood had received a greening treatment, which included planting grass and trees, removing garbage and installing a low fence, while another neighborhood’s vacant lots received no greening treatment. Participants walked through their neighborhoods before the greening intervention and three months after the intervention. Study authors Eugenia South, Michelle Kondo, Rose Cheney and Charles Branas write:

The body’s stress response is a reasonable biological pathway for understanding the impact of neighborhood blight on health. Although this response is protective in acute situations, permanent downstream inflammatory changes and dysregulation of cardiovascular, neurological, and endocrine systems accumulate over a lifetime for persons repeatedly exposed to stressors in their neighborhood surroundings. Basic structural improvements to blighted neighborhood environments, such as “greening” vacant lots, offers a promising and sustainable, yet underused, solution to such stressors.

Among the study participants, average heart rate went from 103.3 beats per minute before the greening intervention to 107.2 beats per minute after the greening intervention, for a total increase of 3.9 beats per minute. When participants weren’t in view of any lots, average heart rate went from 101.2 to 107.2, for a total increase of 6 beats per minute. When in view of nongreened vacant lots, average heart rates went from 99.6 in the preintervention period to 109.1 three months later, for an increase of 9.5 beats per minute. So, what do all those beats mean? According to the researchers’ calculations, the average reduction in heart rate associated with being near the greened lots was more than five beats per minute lower than when near vacant lots that hadn’t been greened.

In comparison, there was minimal change in heart rates among study participants who walked by nongreened vacant lots during both the preintervention and postintervention time periods. All the study participants actually lived in the neighborhoods where the walking study was conducted, so changes in heart rates wouldn’t be attributable to being in unfamiliar surroundings. The study is the first neighborhood walking trial in which physiological effects were measured in real time among people reacting to sites in their own neighborhoods.

The authors noted that their study adds to the growing body of research that finds structural changes in urban environments can have positive impacts on human health. As many public health practitioners say when it comes to health: place matters.

“Vacant lot greening requires no individual action to be effective and is a relatively simple and inexpensive intervention with the potential to affect the health of many residents,” the study stated. “If neighborhood blight contributes to the development of stress in a neighborhood, improvements to these physical conditions may lead to widespread downstream health benefits.”

To request a full copy of the study, visit the American Journal of Public Health. And click here for a news release on the research.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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Wow,even more reason for all of us to go green and such an effective and relatively inexpensive idea.Modern architects should always take aesthetic values of the structures that are on display such as buildings into consideration and strive in making them environmentally friendly and green it will surely benefit us or at least look pleasant .

By u13027744 (not verified) on 24 Mar 2015 #permalink

It is proven that people who spend more time in nature have a more positive outlook mentally, emotionally and, of course, physically than people who spend a large amount of time indoors, so when walking through the neighbourhood and seeing an aesthetically pleasing property it makes sense that our heart rate would decrease significantly.

However, what controls were taken into account when these experiments took place?

By u15007325 (not verified) on 26 Mar 2015 #permalink

I completely agree with this, living in a city makes me accustomed the everyday noise and stress that we deal with. Some free time in the peace and quiet countryside would do a lot to improve our overall wellbeing

This study certainly gives us a health conscious point of view of going green. We never realise how much stress we encounter on a daily basis compared to those living in a peaceful countryside.

By T. Rabie u15090885 (not verified) on 28 Mar 2015 #permalink

Yes that's true , nature has its own way of bringing peace to a person especially green with its blossoming flowers and buds. Its like if you go to a quiet park full of green the heart just feel at ease. I also do sit at a quiet garden when feeling stressed, and it just make me a little better, wondering and admiring flowers around the garden just gives a smile.

One major benefit, aside from the positive effect the greener vacant lots have on people's health, is that it is a very environmentally friendly solution to people's problems. Rather than creating more man-made objects to please people and help reduce their stress, we are going back to the basics and use what was given to us free of charge and free of further consequences such as pollution.
It is very inspiring to see that people can make a huge difference in other's lives by something as simple as planting a tree in a previously unappealing area.
This would be a great idea for places that have many abandoned buildings that have been left to decay over decades.


Going green and planting tress is advantageous in almost every way possible. It appeals to our uniquely human sense of aesthetic appreciation, it's beneficial to our health and it can help with that overwhelming sense of helplessness we get every time the increasingly devastating effects of global warming are mentioned on the news. It really is a simple, cheap solution that every person can partake in.

By Jodi (u15048421) (not verified) on 30 Mar 2015 #permalink

I agree with this completely because the plants in a green space will provide one with extra oxygen. A green space takes ones mind off the busy city life. I also believe people transform into a calm, relaxed and stress free mood when they come into contact with a green space.

By Anthony Micklesfield (not verified) on 31 Mar 2015 #permalink


By Anthony Micklesfield (not verified) on 31 Mar 2015 #permalink

Turning vacant city areas into a greenery area is a very clever and creative idea. I can easily relate to this blog as I feel more relaxed and my stress levels are lowered when I look at nature and greenery. The green belts in a city are known as the lungs of the city and all city's should adopt this idea. The concept of greening the city will help reduce pollution levels. Although, it is very easy to start the project, the difficulty comes in when these green areas need to be maintained. Will the governing bodies of the areas be able to keep up the maintenance ?

With an ever-growing population, space and land have become more valuable than ever. Natural habitats have been destroyed because of urbanization causing a decrease in the amount of 'green' seen in our daily lives. Not only is the lack of nature related to an increase in stress levels, but also to the increase in disease and deaths. Due to stress' cumulative nature, small daily stressors slowly build, resulting in major negative outcomes. By renovating the lots, not only do they decrease the heart rate of those walking by, but they decrease stress levels and therefore all illnesses and diseases associated with them. By making a small, inexpensive change we could be making a huge difference in many lives. If i could suggest anything it would be to play your part - plant a tree. How amazing would it be to save lives and the planet at the same time.

By u15027725 (not verified) on 05 Apr 2015 #permalink

These are great findings giving us a lot of reason towards planting of trees and other plants . That would help not only towards global warming crisis but also would benefit our health , i hope the world could take such information and act on in it. 13413890

By Lindokuhle N (not verified) on 07 Apr 2015 #permalink

This is a great way of relieving stress.Why waste money on medicines if the solution could be outside your house in the neighbourhood? The colour green symbolises freshness and serenity no wander it has such beneficial effects of distressing humans.

By Payal Upadhyay (not verified) on 07 Apr 2015 #permalink

Growing up on a farm, anyone can imagine the trouble I had adapting in the big city when I recently moved to Pretoria. Many people suggested exercise as a way of reducing stress, but it failed miserably. Instead, I found that heading to the park was the best way to handle a rough day. The wind rustling through the leaves and the grass between your toes is what truly serves as the best anti-depressant. This post only proves to me what I already know- that we all need nature, not only to survive, but to enjoy life. (15023372)