Barcelona bets on green to boost city’s mental health

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By Helen Collin.

There are plenty of reasons for major cities to go green: to adapt to climate change, to lower emissions, to tackle air pollution.

In Barcelona, urban planners are motivated by an additional factor: A pilot scheme to tame traffic and create more green spaces across three neighborhoods has been shown to improve residents’ mental health.

As part of the Superilla (Superblocks) project starting in 2013, the city created a cluster of greener, quieter streets in the small neighborhoods of Poblenou, Horta and Sant Anton that are largely closed to through traffic and where residents can play and socialize.

A survey of people living in the three repurposed areas found people reported better rest, increased socialization and less perceived noise and air pollution. They also indicated that the areas are quieter, more comfortable and safer, making it easier for them to interact with their neighbors.

Now, under an ambitious proposal known as Eixos Verds (Green Axis), the local government plans to extend the project across much of the city.

The goal is to create a network of quieter roads that make it easier and safer to travel on foot or by bike, and increase the number of greener public spaces where neighbors can interact with one another. Instead of bumper-to-bumper cars, streets will be lined with trees, play parks, cycle lanes, benches and community squares.

The plans tick a number of boxes: By creating cooler green spaces, which in turn hoovers up carbon dioxide, they’ll help the city adapt to climate change. By slashing traffic exhaust fumes and encouraging active mobility, they’ll improve air quality and residents’ overall health.

But at the heart of the transformation is also the goal of boosting residents’ mental health by cutting noise and air pollution, making them feel safer and better able to integrate with their neighbors, and lowering feelings of isolation.

It’s the science

A study by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health published in Environment International found that the Green Axis project, if fully implemented, would prevent 14 percent of self-perceived poor mental health and reduce visits to mental health specialists by 13 percent. It would also cut antidepressant use by 13 percent and sedative use by 8 percent each year.

“This study helps illustrate that greening is a relevant strategy to promote health, and in particular mental health, in urban settings,” study co-author Diana Vidal Yáñez, from Barcelona University, commented.

Those findings add to growing scientific evidence that access to nature helps prevent mental health disorders. Noise pollution from traffic has been linked to stress, sleeplessness, anxiety and depression, while bad air quality has been linked to mental health impacts such as dementia and strokes.

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