Research Brief: Urban gardening and its positive impact on the emotional wellbeing of residents

Vegetable garden.

Source: Getty/firina.

As urban areas strive to enhance their residents’ quality of life, research from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs shows that access to gardening could have a profound effect on a person’s emotional wellbeing and help address sustainable development goals. 

“It’s important to remember that more than 50% of the world’s population lives in an urban environment,” said study co-author Yingling Fan, professor in regional policy and planning in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “Many sustainable development goals are where the environment and human health and wellbeing meet.”

The study, published in the June 2020 issue of Landscape and Urban Planning, examined data collected from more than 370 randomly selected participants in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. Participants were then asked to input emotional wellbeing-linked data into the app Daynamica, which allows for users to track activities and rank their emotions during that activity.

The study combined demographic data, exit interview answers, and geo-location information provided via Daynamica, a smartphone app, to determine where the gardening took place. 

The study found:

  • gardening at home is associated with high emotional wellbeing, similar to biking and walking;
  • vegetable gardening is associated with higher emotional wellbeing than ornamental gardening;
  • household gardening is the only activity in this study where women and people with low incomes reported higher emotional wellbeing than men and those with higher incomes; and
  • emotional wellbeing while gardening at home alone is no different from gardening with someone else.

Researchers say these findings show how urban gardening can meet a city’s planning goals. It can do so by creating a more liveable city, as a factor in addressing food security in urban areas, and by meeting the United Nations’ 11th sustainable development goal to make cities more inclusive, resilient and sustainable.

“Our research shows that city planners and leaders should include vegetable gardening, particularly at home, among the other, more common livability standards cities consider, such as cycling and walking infrastructure,” said Fan, who was the lead inventor of the Daynamica app and has studied transportation-related happiness using Daynamica data. 

Fan and Kirti Das, Fan’s Humphrey School Ph.D. advisee, collaborated with Princeton University researcher Graham Ambrose, the paper’s first author, and Princeton Professor Anu Ramaswami, the paper’s corresponding author. Fan and Kirti Das work on happy cities and administered the Minneapolis Well-Being Survey used in this paper. Ramaswami and Ambrose study urban food systems and developed the gardening-related questions and the comparative analysis in this paper. All researchers were at the Humphrey School when this study was initiated as part of the Sustainable Healthy Cities Network with support from the National Science Foundation (#1444745). 

Researchers acknowledge that, while this study is one of the first studies to evaluate the emotional wellbeing benefits tied to urban household gardening in North America, there are places that gardening may not be advantageous. This can include areas where soil and water quality are poor due to contamination, rendering any food grown there unsafe for consumption. Future work evaluating the nuances between household and community gardening is currently being pursued as a collaboration between Fan and Ramaswami.

Key study results are also available here.

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07/20/2020