skip to content

Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

May 2021: Urban green spaces ranging from parks to lakes and trees can contribute significantly to people’s mental and physical health. Exposure to nature can be an effective and often cost-efficient tool to lower health risks associated with lack of physical activity and mitigate mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. Urban green spaces should be a priority for urban planners and policy makers when considering designs for future and sustainable cities.


During the lockdowns and shelter-in-place restrictions implemented to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, many people re-discovered their connection to nature and a desire to spend time outdoors. It highlights the value and benefit of spending time outdoors, but often raises questions of equitable access to nature for city-dwellers, especially for densely populated areas and areas with high social inequalities. In a new approach, researchers combined public health data with information on nature’s benefits to people in cities and found a strong connection between positive health outcomes and equitable access to nature. This includes access to natural areas in cities such as parks, lakes, trees, hedges, and other green urban spaces. It coincides with reports that, in the US, lack of physical activity alone results in $117 billion a year in health-related care costs and leads to 3.2 million annual global deaths.

Implications and opportunities

Access to natural areas in cities can have a plethora of positive benefits. This includes providing cooling shade in the summer, safe harbour for city wildlife such as pollinators, and absorbing rainwater to decrease flood risk. In addition, it can support cognitive, emotional, and spiritual well-being, as well as physical health. For example, trees or hedges lining a street may encourage people to take longer strolls or choose to cycle to work. Green spaces in cities further contribute to community resilience as they encourage social engagements and provide mental health benefits. For example, under the ‘blue prescribing’ scheme, people experiencing poor mental health are encouraged to access London’s Wildfowl & Wetlands Trusts’ Wetland Centre which has been shown to mitigate cases of anxiety and depression. This approach seeks to embed exposure to nature in medical therapy. It forms part of a movement towards ‘social prescribing’, where exercise, social activities, home improvements and other interventions are used as effective, and often inexpensive treatments, to improve physical and mental health. It highlights that building natural spaces into cities can support overall human wellbeing and should be a priority concern for policy makers and urban planners aiming to create healthier and more sustainable cities around the world.


All recommendations should be seen within the context of their geographic limitations and should be adapted, where necessary.


Remme, R.P., Frumkin,, 2021. An ecosystem service perspective on urban nature, physical activity, and health. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118 (22).

Carrington, D., (2021). Nature on prescprition: wetlands projects aims to boost mental health. Available at: