Research Summary

Growing up green: A systematic review of the influence of greenspace on youth development and health outcomes

Green space exposure can promote youth development outcomes, but more research is needed in low- and middle-income countries

Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology
2022

There is evidence that youth interaction with nature has declined in the past five decades despite evidence of the benefits of green space exposure in high-income countries. This review explores the association between greenspace exposure and youth development outcomes. This review only includes studies with longitudinal data or quasi-experimental or experimental study designs since most of the studies in this space have been cross-sectional.

Findings from 28 studies that addressed green space exposure from childhood to adolescence (2- to 18-year-old) were analyzed. The data either looked at distance to greenspace, type of green space (e.g., parks, gardens), use of greenspace or frequency of exposure to greenspace. There were five developmental outcomes identified: cognitive and brain development, mental health and wellbeing, attention and behavior, allergy and respiratory, and obesity and weight. An additional study focused on eyesight development.

All studies testing association with mental health and wellbeing found a positive association relating to improved prosocial behavior, mood, resilience, and self-determination; decreased risk of developing schizophrenia; and lower incidence of psychiatric disorders among adolescents and urban residents. A majority of the studies found a positive association with attention and behavior such as self-determination, self-regulation, attention, lower frequency of peer and conduct problem, and decreased odds of an ADHD diagnosis. About half of the studies on cognitive and brain development found a positive association with greenspace. There were contradictory findings in the three studies testing associations with allergy and respiratory functioning, and the quality of the reported studies was low. This was similar to the two studies on obesity and weight that were also contradictory, with lower quality studies.

The review indicates that overall greenspace may promote youth development especially mental health and wellbeing, attention and behavior, and cognitive and brain development. The review also highlights some gaps related to how greenspace relates to youth development, and the authors provide recommendations for enhancing the evidence base. This includes developing more rigorous and standardized greenspace measurements; diversifying sample populations to include low-income, non-White, and non-Western populations; as well as a push for more longitudinal studies, especially randomized control trials.