Modeling Environmental Benefits on Mental Health

Guest blogger: Rick Thomas (MESM 2017)


Rick in front of one of Stanford’s largest green areas, the Oval.

If a tree falls in the middle of a city and no one hears it, does the likelihood of mental illness within the neighborhood increase?

Before I generate too much confusion, let me allay anyone’s fears that this is just some unorthodox philosophical inquiry. Rather, this question has been the focus of my Bren Internship this summer, a question that I predict will soon start changing how cities are managed.

I’ve had the opportunity to conduct research alongside a Bren MESM alum through a newly minted collaboration between the Psychology and Environmental Science departments at Stanford University. In its simplest form, our work aims to quantify the mental benefits people receive from nature so as to more accurately value it. This general process describes what is commonly regarded as ‘ecosystem services,’ whereby scientists model how changes in ecosystem properties (think: number of pollinators, or tree cover) lead to changes in the services people receive from them (think: pollinated crops, or cleaner air). In doing so, scientists are capable of putting a dollar value on these services to help inform the public and policy makers of their importance.

Now, some people find the idea of putting a dollar value on a bee—or a pretty vista—abhorrent, unrealistic, or both. While I once shared these views, my time at Bren has led me to believe that without doing so, market forces will continue to undervalue (and therefore exploit) the natural world around us. Our research team at Stanford is part of a growing group that hypothesizes how society will always undervalue natural ecosystems until we also factor in their role in psychological wellbeing, a previously unaddressed concept in the world of ecosystem services. While more and more studies continue to validate the diverse mental health benefits nature can provide, there has yet to be a successful method capable of predicting them.

Rick discussing with a fellow Research Assistant the level of development across San Francisco. Red on the map shows high development, and could be indicators to changes mental health.

Rick discussing with a fellow Research Assistant the level of development across San Francisco. Red on the map shows high development, and could be indicators to changes in mental health.

Enter our team. Just as scientists currently model how much soil erosion or biodiversity loss may occur from clear-cutting forests, we aim to model how the prevalence of mental health disorders changes as cities invest in urban greenness. With the help of geospatial software, I have been overlaying high resolution satellite imagery of urban landscapes alongside mental health indicators such as perceived well-being or serious psychological distress to understand their relationship. After controlling for socioeconomic factors and other confounding variables, I am able to isolate the ‘nature effect’ on mental health differences across neighborhoods. The end goal of this analysis is to give decision makers the tools to predict how minute changes in an urban landscape—such as adding trees to a city block—will affect likelihoods of mental illness for inhabitants.

Which brings me back to my original question. While it may ultimately be the case that a single tree has no measurable effect on mental health (the jury is still out), it is not a stretch to say that city greenness has a role to play in urban dwellers’ wellbeing. Helping create a method whereby cities and agencies can understand what this role is and how to maximize it has been an incredible project to work on, and I’m excited to see what comes of it.

Rick Thomas is specializing in Corporate Environmental Management at The Bren School. He is conducting research on the health benefits of nature exposure this summer at Stanford University and will be a co-author of the study. This summer work has convinced him to begin applying for another Master’s degree, this time in Public Health. He can’t decide if he is a visionary for adding on the MPH to his MESM, or insane.

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  1. Dotty Thomas 18 August, 2016 at 11:28 Reply

    I am very much for being close to nature as I think it lifts your spirits to look out upon the wonderful things that grow in our world. I used to live in the country and could roam through the country. Now I live in town so the first thing I do in the morning is open the windows in my house to be able to see nature outside. It makes me happy to see plants growing, the wind moving in the trees, birds flying around as the world comes to life for the day. It makes me smile and just plain happy to be alive and improves my mood for the whole day.

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