CITY parks offer not only a green oasis for birds escaping the concrete and glass of man’s world, but for people finding the stresses and strains of the urban jungle too much to bear.
On summer afternoons, watching the welcome swallows swooping over the greensward of the Parliament Lawns I have always been surprised at the large number of people, like the birds, seeking refuge there.
The notion that “parks are good for city dwellers” was first advanced by town planners in the Victorian era and it has now been given weight by a university study in Scotland.
The urban landscape with its canyons of buildings and, most of all, its noise, is an unnatural one for both humans and wildlife. Urban living gives people brain fatigue, and they became tired of not only the noise, but having to be constantly alert and aware out on the streets. It has the same affect on birds, with birds moderating their songs to take into account the louder noise of the city, as I have reported in the past.
The calming effect of a walk in the park is something that speaks for itself, it is so obvious that it does not need explaining, but a team of researchers actually set out to measure scientifically how vital green, open spaces can be for human health.
The city of Edinburgh was used in the experiment which found a marked contrast in people’s mental and emotional response to bricks and mortar, and grass and trees.
The theory that green spaces are calming has been difficult to test on moving people until the recent development of a lightweight, portable electro-encephalogram, which monitors brain activity. For the study, researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh attached the portable EEGs to the scalps of 12 young, healthy volunteers. Different participants walked through two contrasting areas of Edinburgh – busy commercial and shopping districts, and parks.
When the subjects walked through urban areas their brainwaves showed they were agitated and frustrated, compared with the calmness they felt in leafy areas of a park.
Jenny Roe, a lecturer at Heriot-Watt’s School of the Built Environment who oversaw the study, said it suggested that anyone feeling stressed should consider taking a break in a park.
Dr Roe said in an interview with the New York Times that taking a time-out could include “going for a walk in a green space or just sitting, or even viewing green spaces from your office window”. This is not unproductive time-wasting, Dr Roe said. “It is likely to have a restorative effect and help with attention fatigue and stress recovery.”
I put the study to the test at the approach of autumn during a particularly stressful day in Hobart. Sitting in St David’s park one afternoon I may have been disappointed to find that the swallows had already left for warmer climes on the mainland, but yellow wattlebirds had moved into the park for winter to take their place.
And wattlebirds gave my little experiment a different dimension. The wattlebirds are endemic to Tasmania, and made a quiet moment sitting on a Hobart park bench unique in time and place.