Proof gardens make us happier and healthier

One of our favourite reads over summer has been ‘Happy City’, a book by Charles Montgomery. The book draws on initiatives in urban design that have transformed the lives of urban populations. It’s been a fascinating read and to the dear friend who brought it to our attention, we are eternally grateful!

At Victory Gardens, we see first-hand the benefits that gardens bring to the lives of people of all ages. The Hunter St Mall Victory Garden, once a tired and uninspiring spot in the Newcastle CBD is now a lively, rambling edible garden, enjoyed by many living and working in the area. Our corporate, residential and aged care installations have also been well received by staff, families and elderly residents.

But what is at the heart of why people love getting their hands dirty? We decided to dig a little deeper and explore the scientific evidence around gardening and its impact on health and wellbeing. What better place to start than Montgomery’s book.

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“Happy City” by Charles Montgomery shows us how gardens, big and small, perform an important role in our health and wellbeing

Montgomery draws on studies by Kuo & Sullivan (1998, 2002, 2004) who observed that what is crucial for healthy living is not the quantity of nature around us but our relationship to it. “Merely adding up a city’s sum total of park space tells us little about each resident’s nature diet.”

The evidence in “Happy City” suggests that in order to be beneficial, nature has to be part of your daily habitat and routine. Daily exposure is essential and proximity matters. This means we need to build nature into the urban system, our workplaces, hospitals, aged care facilities and our streets and homes in equal measure at all scales. (Berman et al 2008, Weinstein et al 2009, Kuo et al 2010, OECD 2011).

He writes, “Yes, cities need big immersive destination parks but they also need medium sized parks and community gardens walking distance from home. They need pocket parks and green strips and potted plants and living green walls.” As an innovative mayor of Bogota, Gil Penalosa, put it “cities need green in sizes S, M, L and XL.”

New research has taken the argument of proximity one step further. Extreme intimacy, not just looking at nature, but actually touching and working with plants and dirt may elevate our serotonin levels, as it has been shown to in animal studies.

This discovery is fascinating and reinforces the positive benefit that nature has on us, also known as ‘Biophilia’. Coined by Edward Wilson in 1984, Biophilia holds that humans are hardwired to find particular scenes of nature calming and restorative.

Kids enjoying creative nature play outdoors Image courtesy of Wildcraft Australia's Kids Camp Photo by Tricia Hogbin (

Kids enjoying creative nature play outdoors Image courtesy of Wildcraft Australia’s Kids Camp Photo by Tricia Hogbin (


Psychologists Kaplan and Kaplan reinforced this in 1989, observing that we pay attention in two completely different ways – voluntarily and involuntarily. Voluntary attention is the kind we engage in when we are consciously solving problems or negotiating city streets. It requires plenty of focus and energy and can tire us and result in stress. Conversely involuntarily attention, the kind we give to nature, is effortless like a daydream or a song washing through your brain. You might not even realise you are paying it attention yet it has the potential to calm and restore your energy.

So it appears that the level of distraction we have in our modern lives with smart phones, traffic, open plan offices, and so on, is elevating our stress levels. Being around nature and the act of focussing on one thing, whether it be watching a sun set or watering a garden, can have a tremendous impact on our resilience to the pressures of city living.

An edible garden at NSW Health Pathology has had a positive impact

An edible garden at NSW Health Pathology has had a positive impact

Kuo and Sullivan even go so far as to say that in fact the more rambling a garden the more satisfying to the brain. Montgomery’s team at the BMW Guggenheim Lab reinforced this by measuring levels of emotional arousal of volunteers walking around New York. As the urban terrain varied so did the people’s emotions. They reported the biggest spike in happiness and arousal occurred inside a gated seniors’ garden in Sara Roosevelt Park. “The garden was almost jungle-like in its variety if leafy plants shrubs and mature trees.”

Studies have shown that exposure to natural environments also enhances our ability to recover from stress, illness and injury.
– Hospital patients with views of nature need less pain medication and get better faster (Ulrich 1984)
– Heart patients exposed to trees, forests and water, are less anxious and experience less pain than those exposed to abstract art (Ulrich, 2002)
– Dental patients are less stressed on days when nature murals are hung on the walls (Heerwagen & Orians 1990)
– Correctional officers have reduced stress when exposed to nature (Wener et al 2009)
– Crime rates are less in areas with green space (Kuo et al 2001)

In Australia in 2010 Beyond Blue released a report by Deakin University researchers (Townsend and Weerasuriya) called “Beyond Blue to Green” exploring the benefits of contact with nature for mental health and wellbeing.

Townsend and Weerasuriya’s literature search found studies demonstrating health and wellbeing benefits from gardens and green spaces in:
– improving blood pressure and self esteem
– supporting positive behaviours in children and adolescents
– decreasing symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder
– restoring cognitive attention in the workplace
– reducing pain in the elderly in nursing home
– improving emotional and spiritual wellbeing of cancer patients

It appears that the effects of living in a “green” environment cannot be underestimated.

So what does all this mean for you?

Well, no matter where you live, have something green growing around you, nurture it and enjoy its fruits. Encourage your workplace to start a garden. It doesn’t have to be large, just somewhere people can take time out to check on it and socialise. Spend time with the kids in any natural environment big or small, encourage them to nurture and take care of a plant. Perhaps throw some seeds like good bug mix around the garden and see what pops up!

For us this is great news. All of these studies back up what we do and what we innately believe. By converting underutilised spaces to productive gardens, Victory Gardens is helping make Newcastle a ‘Happy city”. If we can inspire you to add a bit more gardening in your life then we are doing a good thing.

Many people we meet say they have trouble with the upkeep of a garden, if this is you, then we can help. Whether a residential balcony, an aged care or health facility, or in the workplace we can design and install easy self watering gardens for you to enjoy! We can even maintain them for you if you are time poor. Checkout our products and packages and get in touch to find out more.

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