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Experiencing nature in the urbanscape can alleviate our mental stress during the pandemic

Update : 14 Oct 2023, 12:44 AM

We are probably in the largest psychological experiment ever, with about 2.6 billion people around the world at some kind of lockdown due to the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak. Fear and anxiety about this new disease and what could happen can be devastating and cause severe mental stress in people of different ages, including children and adults. 

Health measures, such as social distancing, can make people feel lonely and isolated and increase mental stress and anxiety. Consequently, it will lead to a secondary outbreak of burnouts and stress-related absenteeism. 

Nature Medicine, a very reputed and high impact journal, reported that a past outbreak of similar crisis was associated with detrimental effects on mental wellbeing. The SARS epidemic in 2003 brought a 30% increase in suicides among older adults, emotional distress in healthcare providers and survivors and depression in the general populace. 

An article published in The Journal of General Psychiatry mentioned a wide variety of psychological problems, such as panic disorder, anxiety and depression in Chinese people due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We, Bangladeshis, are no exceptions, passing through the same mental conditions.

We cannot avoid public health actions such as quarantine, isolation, social distancing and associated mental health impacts as these are necessary to reduce the spread of Covid-19. However, taking initiatives from an individual level can reduce the toxic effects of this crisis. 

Thousands of research have shown the positive effect of nature on health and wellbeing, specifically in the urban landscape or urbanscape with confined populations. University of Washington news (April 16, 2020) mentioned a study that found a 20-minute "dose" of nature in cities reduced stress levels. 

Similarly, another study showed that more tree cover helped to reduce the symptoms of depression among residents of nursing homes. One study in Sweden revealed that access to a garden significantly reduced participants' stress.

Urban residents can go outdoors if they are not in red zones and move to experience nature, keeping the recommended minimum distance of 6 feet between people, as well as maintaining the standard health protocol for the pandemic like avoiding busy areas, and washing hands as soon as they get home. Spending time in a park or natural reservoir can make urbanites feel happier and healthier. However, going outside is challenging for many due to zone-wise lockdown and safety concerns. 

If experiencing outdoors nature is not an option, there are still ways to experience nature from home. Urbanites who have backyards, rooftops or balconies can replicate these benefits at home by nursing a garden or potted plants. Sitting near a tree, experiencing or studying a single flower, or a leaf and its every curve and feature will reduce stress and anxiety.  

Nature can also be experienced virtually. If someone is sheltering in a very confined place and cannot easily access natural spaces, nature videos, and recordings of natural sounds are other means of feeling nature. A virtual tour of a National Park can reduce the stress level.

Four months into the pandemic and knowing that the end of the crisis is probably nowhere near, a different dimension of urban settlement planning requires attention. Given that experiencing outdoors nature is challenging during the Covid-19 situation, emphasize should be given to making private free spaces around households greener. Rooftop garden or agriculture, potted plants in balcony, green walls, pocket gardens, front yard or backyard gardening, rain gardens, pools are some of the options urbanites can adopt to experience nature. 

People residing in a place where green (garden, plants) and blue (pond, lake, pools) spaces are visible, feel less stressed even in a stressful situation. Furthermore, natural elements in residence help to reduce heat and greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and provide air full of oxygen to inhale. 

This is why urban planning and management policies should integrate strategies to encourage planting trees and creating water bodies in privately-owned spaces. Presently, the Dhaka South City Corporation offers a 10% tax rebate on holdings that have a garden in household associated spaces. This initiative is appreciable, and in future other big cities in Bangladesh should adopt similar strategies to re-nature the urbanscape.  

Presently, every human being is going through disruption of some sorts in mental soundness. Taking actions from the individual level is the most comfortable option to feel stress-free during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Naturing one's personal space of living is simple and brings ways for recreation and aesthetics experience. At the same time, it contributes to reducing future climate change impact in cities. However, severe mental conditions require expert consultation and proper healthcare.

Covid-19 is not the last pandemic to occur in our interconnected world, and sadly it will not be the worst. There are two very different potential options for us: one in which, as we have always done, we put our heads in the sand and one in which we take necessary initiatives to guard ourselves. 

This time, we had better choose the second option. That is to take the path toward resilience by making our homes full of plants, building mental stress-relievers at our roofs, balconies and backyards.

Rumana Sultana, PhD, is an Assistant Professor and Research Associate at the Center for Sustainable Development (CSD), University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB). Contact the author at: [email protected]

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