Human Health & Plants Research: Green Space and the Health and Well-Being of University Students

Dr. Charles Guy

Abundant research has demonstrated psychological benefits associated with exposure to and immersion in green spaces and natural environments. While the campuses of most colleges and universities possess ample green space by design, their students reporting feelings of stress is at an all-time high. Researchers from Furman and Yale Universities reporting in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health1 conducted a study with a population of undergraduates to better understand the type and frequency of green space interactions, and the barriers that reduce green space contact and immersion.

The study was conducted between the months of April and September on the Furman University campus that includes a mixture of green space consisting of wooded areas with walking and running trails, a lake bounded by a mixed multimodal passageway, gardens, and a well-maintained landscape. The investigators created a customized online survey that collected student characteristics, the frequency and type of student green space interactions, barriers to green space usage and perceived psychological and physical health. Green space was defined as: “Area(s) containing elements of living systems that include plants and animals across a range of scales and degrees of human management, from a small urban park through a relatively ‘pristine wilderness.’” The 10-question Perceived Stress Scale was used to evaluate student stress. Adjusted Odds Ratio and 95% Confidence Intervals (CI) were calculated for each measure of well-being.

The study invited 224 students to participate of which 220 agreed, and 207 provided complete information. Students were mostly white (85.5%), freshman or sophomore (74.4%), and female (69.6%). Students reporting a High Green Space Score were twice as likely to report “Felt very happy last week” compared to those reporting a Not High Green Space Score. For students reporting physically active use of green space, statistically significant associations were found for low perceived stress scores (Adjusted Odds Ratio = 2.72, 95% CI: 1.40, 5.29), and for high “quality of life” scores (Adjusted Odds Ratio = 3.39, 95% CI = 1.76, 6.53). Identified barriers borne out by the study included “not enough time,” and surprisingly, students reported they were “not aware of opportunities” for contact and/or immersion in green space and natural environments.

The researchers concluded that university students benefit most when they engage in physical activities in green spaces. Based on this and other studies, colleges and universities perhaps should promote increased physical activities usage of campus green spaces as countermeasures for students’ feelings of stress and low quality of life.

1Holt, E.W.; Lombard, Q.K.; Best, N.; Smiley-Smith, S.; Quinn, J.E. Active and Passive Use of Green Space, Health, and Well-Being amongst University Students. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019, 16, 424.

Charles Guy, Emeritus and Courtesy Professor
Department of Environmental Horticulture, University of Florida