By Joseph Douglas and Karl Evans
People gain lots of benefit from visiting city parks, including having better mental health. It is not clear why these benefits arise – which makes it difficult to design urban parks in the best way. One theory is that people benefit from connecting to nature. In particular, experiencing lots of different species of plants and wildlife may allow people to recover from stress and concentrate on difficult challenges.
We test this idea by measuring how members of the public respond to visiting urban parks with different numbers of bird species singing. During our experiment, each participant watched two three-minute videos of the same walk through parks in Sheffield, UK. We also assessed how strongly people were connected to the natural world. During one virtual walk they heard birdsong from a single species – either a robin or a blue tit – and during the other they heard song from eight species native to the UK (including robin and blue tit). We ask people to say how enjoyable, restorative and stimulating they found the walks, and compare the diversity of wildlife they experienced. We also tested the ability of people to concentrate on a difficult mental challenge before and after each walk.
People clearly identified which walk contained bird song from more species, and enjoyed that walk the most. The ability to concentrate on difficult tasks was not related to the number of bird species that were singing, but was much greater in people who were more connected to nature.
Our results show that designing city parks to support more bird species will increase people’s enjoyment of urban green-space. They also suggest that being connected with the natural world will help you recover ‘focus’ and the ability to concentrate – which is known to benefit mental health and wellbeing.