The planet is rapidly urbanizing, with people leaving rural environments for concrete jungles. Currently, half the world's population lives in cities, almost a six-fold rise since 1950. By 2050, 68 percent of people are expected to live in urban areas.
According to recent research, published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, one accessible backyard activity could help buffer these negative mental and physical effects: household gardening.
In the study, which compared gardening to a range of other activities, the team found household gardening boosts emotional wellbeing as much as walking or biking. They also found no meaningful difference between household gardening and community gardening.
All of these activities provided less of a boost than leisure activities like going to the movies. But importantly, gardening often requires fewer resources than going to a show.
"Gardening is something everyone of all ages can do to their ability — it's not out of reach," co-author Anu Ramaswami, a civil engineer and sustainable city expert, tells Inverse. "Particularly household gardening — you don't have to go somewhere, you don't need to walk or take transit to go to a community garden. It's literally accessible in your own backyard if you have a yard nearby."
Cityscapes — Until now, gardening has been "relatively underfunded and under-recognized," Ramaswami says.
Urban planners often focus on other activities in the built environment such as bike programs or walking paths. When they do hone in on gardening, they often analyze the impact of community gardening, not household gardening, because it can be easier to measure engagement.
"When we are alone and isolating at home, this is almost an ideal activity to boost emotional well being."
To figure out how frequently urban dwellers garden, and how the activity might translate to mental health gains, Ramaswami and her team surveyed 370 people living in four urban and two suburban neighborhoods in Minneapolis. Over a week, study participants reported their daily activities and emotions through a phone app.
The team studied different types of gardening (vegetable versus ornamental gardening, done alone or otherwise), and leisure activities like walking, running, biking, shopping, and eating out. They examined how these activities influenced the group's mental health and captured multiple dimensions of emotional well being: peak happiness, meaningfulness, and net effect (general moods and emotions).
Across all three emotional dimensions, gardening was consistently among the top five out of 15 activities analyzed in the study. Gardening was not statistically different from biking, walking, and eating out.
Gardening ranked fourth for average net effect and average happiness, and second in average meaningfulness.
Vegetable gardening had a more positive effect on happiness than ornamental gardening, which the researchers suspect may be linked to nutritional benefits.
Certain groups, namely low income, and female participants, experienced the most mood-boosting benefit compared to high income or male participants.
"There is a gender aspect as well as income aspect, which is important for equity," Ramaswami says. "If cities are going to invest in gardening by providing funds or starter kits to households, if they did that in lower-income areas, they would be addressing not only nutritional deficits but also boosting well being."
Interestingly, whether people gardened solo or with others didn't make a meaningful difference. This finding is counter to past research that stresses the importance of social connections for community gardeners.
"A lot of people do report the 'Do It Yourself' aspect," Ramaswami says. "That when you do crafts and you build things by yourself, you get a feeling of satisfaction of having finished something."
Based on these findings, gardening seems to make cities more livable and sustainable. Ramaswami and her team hope urban planners take note: Gardening, especially household gardening, deserves more attention and investment, the researchers say.
"When we are alone and isolating at home, this is almost an ideal activity to boost emotional well being, to do good for the environment, and to improve your own health through better nutrition," Ramaswami says. "There are triple benefits."
LONGEVITY HACKS is a regular series from Inverse on the science-backed strategies to live better, healthier, and longer without medicine.
HOW THIS AFFECTS LONGEVITY — Gardening, especially household gardening, is proven to boost mood as much as biking, walking, or eating out.
WHY IT'S A HACK — Gardening requires relatively little skill and resources. Anyone can do it, at any age.
SCIENCE IN ACTION — To get planting, experts advising testing your soil for contaminants like lead. Then, if the soil is safe, start planting with these top tips from a horticulturist.
HACK SCORE OUT OF 10 — 🌱🌱🌱🌱🌱🌱🌱(7/10 hopeful sprouts)
Abstract: As cities seek to become more livable and environment-friendly, activities like bicycling, walking, and urban gardening (household and community-gardening) are receiving much attention. However, few field studies have measured well-being of urban gardening, particularly during household gardening. Our study develops protocols to measure emotional well-being (EWB) reported during household gardening, comparing it with other leisure and day-to-day activities. We also explore how gardening EWB varies across gardener type (vegetable vs ornamental), demographics, neighborhood type, and companionship during gardening. Using a recently developed app-based Day Reconstruction Method, EWB was measured across 370 participants in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Area, USA, wherein 118 (32%) reported engaging in household gardening. Innovatively, five measures of EWB were computed for each participant for each activity type: average net affect, average happiness, average meaningfulness, the frequency of experiencing peak positive emotions (happiness and meaningfulness). Among all three average EWB measures, gardening is among the top 5 out of 15 activities assessed, and, is not statistically different from biking, walking and eating out. All four of these activities fall behind other leisure/recreation activities, which ranks first. For frequency of experiencing peak happiness, only other leisure/recreation activities were statistically higher than all the remaining (14) activities. Average net affect of gardening was significantly higher for vegetable gardeners (vs ornamental), for low-income gardeners (vs higher income) and for women. Companionship while gardening at home, race/ethnicity and urban versus suburban location showed no significant difference. Livability and equity considerations based on these EWB findings, and their impacts on urban food plans, are discussed.