By: Yanuara Ramirez

Living in an urban environment can be hectic and stressful. Green spaces might be hard to come by, especially in lower income communities. The University of Pennsylvania published a study this year that for the first time was able to quantify the positive effects of green spaces in a community on the residents’ mental health.

The study, titled “Effects of Greening Vacant Land on Mental Health of Community-Dwelling Adults,” showed that those living near green spaces reported a 63 percent reduction in mental health issues.

Though this study is recent, several organizations throughout the city have been trying to put this idea into practice in Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Jefferson University and the University of Pennsylvania are among them.

The Azelea Garden near the Art Museum is one of the parks maintained by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

Kim Douglas is the director of the Landscape Architecture program at Jefferson University. She recently co-wrote an article in called “Let’s promote health and green space one empty lot at a time,” where she discussed the recent Penn study, explained the benefits of living near green spaces, and made suggestions for programs she thinks could be beneficial to these lower income community.

One of these programs suggests putting high schoolers in charge of the planning and renovating of an empty lots in order to teach them leadership, collaboration and even accounting skills. Douglas sees green spaces as opportunities to improve education within at-risk youth populations.

“I think that access to green spaces, especially in urban neighborhoods, is essential for children. I do a lot of research around nature and kids  and I believe that it teaches a myriad of skills, many of which are critical for learning, especially especially for school. They’re called executive functions, and they’re really the CEO of the brain. And being outside in green environments, more nature, teaches a lot of those skills,” said Douglas.

Green spaces allow people to be closer to nature and drown out the harsh noise of the city.

Another advocate for expanding green spaces throughout the city is Eva Monheim, a faculty member at Longwood Gardens and the Barnes Foundation. After graduating from college, she worked with at-risk youth in the city and took them outside to teach them gardening skills.

In one occasion, when she returned her class to their English teacher, “one student pulled out a machete and tried to kill the English teacher. Just the idea of being confined in a small space in a building was detrimental to their well being,” said Monheim.

Vacant lots can accumulate trash and debris and make a community look more dilapidated.

Both Douglas and Monheim think that there should be a collaboration between the city and other institutions like the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the city’s universities to increase the number of renovated lots throughout the city because having these kinds of environments can be a stress reliever to the city’s at-risk youth.