Can more exposure to nature mean less violence? As an integrative medicine physician, to me it seems a simple enough prescription.
But certainly that correlation does not address the complex socioeconomic problems of unemployment, education, poverty and lack of opportunity contributing to violence. And this prescription assumes the green space is a safe place. That is perhaps a deadly assumption.
Merely going outside cannot fully address problems of violence when sitting on a porch with family can mean someone is a target for a random shooting. The first official weekend of summer in Chicago heralded in a tragic round of 12 dead and 44 wounded in shootings. And the memory of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton’s death in 2013 — as she was standing in a park with friends — is still haunting.
But it is worth considering that any effort to expand access to nature is worth it, as research supports the vital role of nature in our mental and physical health. Nature-insufficiency is linked to increased chronic disease and violent behavior in children and adults.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s recent second term inauguration speech focused on the city’s violence, just as director Spike Lee’s auditions for a film about violence here was drawing criticism for its title, “Chiraq.”
In his speech, Emanuel said, “These disconnected youth must believe that there’s a place for them too — in a family, a place of worship, a school, or on any porch or in any office in our city.”
And perhaps, too, there is a place for them outside in any park or garden, along the lakefront or on a hiking trail such as The 606 in Bucktown, an elevated bike trail with six parks opening the first week of June. As long as those places are safe.
Is it too much to expect?
A 2001 study reports that public housing residents with more nearby trees and vegetation reported 25 percent fewer acts of domestic aggression and 56 percent fewer violent crimes. A recent database review of the literature on green space and violence, concluded there was a clear association between more green and less crime.
Several local organizations are working on this issue. NeighborSpace helps support communities dedicated to turning empty lots into gardens. The Chicago Botanic Gardens lets youth “get their hands dirty” through the Windy City Harvest Youth. Fourth Presbyterian Church and Kam Isaiah Israel each build urban gardens providing teen education, job training and organic produce for underserved communities. The Chicago Park District brings residents programming, art and cultural events to encourage outdoor recreation.
Of course, there is always more that can be done. A key step is guaranteeing these spaces are safe from violence, not just promising a theoretical antidote to violence.
Studies show nearly 3 out of 10 adults don’t spend time outdoors on a daily basis. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the average American spends 93 percent of his or her life inside. That breaks down to 87 percent of time spent indoors, plus 6 percent of time spent in vehicles. So we spend only half of one day each week outdoors.
Those habits contradict the connection between time spent outdoors and mental well-being. A 2014 study showed that people who moved to greener urban areas felt an immediate improvement in their mental health, and that lift was still fully present three years later.
Internationally, nature as antidote to stress is understood, if not assumed. In Asia the concept of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” with an immersion of all five senses in the forest environment was proven to impact relaxation, including measures of cortisol levels, blood pressure and pulse.
None of this will apply if Chicagoans are not safe outdoors. Is it naive to proclaim that more time spent in nature will decrease levels of violence in Chicago? Perhaps. But we have little to lose if we endorse the greening of Chicago to expand into all neighborhoods giving anyone a safe space to reap the benefits.
Melinda Ring is the Medical Director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University and an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine.