Measuring Motivation: Is There Proof Greener Spaces Get People Moving?

13 Aug

Previously published in Health Elevations

 

A skyscraper with an oasis rooftop meadow sounds like a wonderful place. But does it make any difference in the health and happiness of the people who work there?

A public housing project with a shady walk to a community vegetable garden is much more inviting to most people than an asphalt playground a stoop overlooking hard-packed dirt. But does the green space really get people outside and moving around?

It might be a logical assumption that wide, well-kept sidewalks and guarded road crossings would lead more children to walk to their local school, and begin to make a dent in childhood obesity rates. But does the neighborhood truly change its behavior, or is it just wishful planning?

As the healthy places and built-environment movements grow more popular, the desire to measure the impacts grows apace.

Angela Loder, a Denver researcher on green space and the urban environment, collects examples of what’s been observed so far, and points to the most promising areas for study in the near future. Results are imperfect, her short summary goes, but the challenges are intriguing.

“We haven’t had enough time yet. It’s a very broad subject, and we’re still understanding the broad impacts of many factors on human health,” said Loder. “We now have ‘green buildings’ touted as health-promoting . . . so there’s a lot of desire to quantify that.”

One stat Loder uses to prick up the ears of architects, developers and real estate planners is this: $745. That’s purportedly the annual direct cost of an unhealthy work environment on employee health, in the form of illnesses from headaches to sore throats and stress that lead to lost time, doctor visits and rising insurance premiums.

While she is the first to acknowledge the need for wide-ranging, well-designed studies quantifying built environment and human health, Loder mentions a few reports that point in intriguing directions:

  •  A 1980s study of gall bladder patients on inpatient stays in hospitals compared those randomly assigned to different rooms. Those enjoying windows letting in natural light and a pleasant view stayed 8 days in the hospital and reduced their need for pain medication; with similar medical complications, those without a view or natural light stayed 9 days. Multiply that one day by thousands of patients, and savings could be enormous.
  • One of the most intriguing office space studies was conducted by the U.S. General Services Administration using volunteers from its extensive Lakewood Federal Center offices. The volunteers agreed to periodic biometric scans using heart rate monitors and saliva tests for the cortisol indicated stress. In a major complex renovated over 17 months, researchers could study effects of widely varied office space.
  • The study in the European Society of Cardiology found workers in older office space with poor lighting, bad ventilation and no views had less-healthy heart rates and higher stress levels than those enjoying better space. The study claimed a “clear association between overall workplace physical environment and stress response.”
  • Loder’s own studies of “green roof” office spaces in Toronto and Chicago showed varied reactions to wilder, meadow-style roof plantings, and more sedate but less engaging sedum roofs with short grass and subdued succulent plantings. Workers’ initial reactions to the “prairie” style may be less positive – a “go mow that” reaction, Loder describes it – but smart presentation and education programs about the need for wilder green spaces can change that reaction, she found. People can learn to appreciate things if they learn they were done for a reason, and response to designed spaces is not limited to an innate, “gut” reaction, Loder said.

The lingering question at the end of Loder’s talks is, “So why not do this? Is there any good reason not to try?” Even if the designed environment can’t solve significant employee health problems, you still wind up with a thoughtfully planned building with more inviting spaces and the winning message that the employer has tried hard.

“The drawback of doing it is that it costs more money,” Loder said, bringing listeners back to bricks-and-mortar reality. “For those interested in building, you have to sell them on the idea that it’s worth it.” Will the better design fetch a higher rent? Will tenants flock faster and stay longer? Will cities or other government offset the costs with incentives?

And, Loder added, many developers aren’t willing to confront those cost questions “without serious research” to back them up.

Michael Booth, Health Elevations, Summer 2014

Michael Booth is the Editor in Chief of Health Elevations.

Health Elevations seeks to further the goals of the Colorado Health Foundation by highlighting problems that can be solved, illuminating the people who are making progress in solving them and provoking a new way of looking at complex health issues. The journal will report on and synthesize a variety of sources to provide information that can further the work of policymakers, grantees, providers and the engaged public in advancing better health care, health coverage and healthier living. Useful information presented in a memorable way is indispensable to the complex field of health policy.

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