As of the 2016 Census, 83.9% of Albertans live in urban and periurban areas. Projections released by the Government of Alberta suggest that by 2046, the province will become more urbanized, with 80% of the population living in the Edmonton-Calgary corridor.
The question of urban and community liveability has been studied through a variety of quality-of-life indexes (QLIs) and can be defined as “the ability of urban spaces to fulfill the expectations of its inhabitants for wellbeing and quality of life.” The COVID-19 pandemic forced people to spend more time at home and in their own communities. Park visitation increased to levels never seen before as residents looked for recreational opportunities and access to nature. In “building back better” after the pandemic, municipalities and developers can employ nature-based solutions to mitigate risks associated with climate change and also enhance community liveability.
Nature-based solutions provide many benefits to communities and contribute to the liveability of neighbourhoods and municipalities. These include social, cultural, recreational, and health benefits, and also contribute to real estate marketability for new developments and existing properties and communities. Some of these values, as well as the intrinsic value of nature, can be difficult to account for in economic terms and work is being done to formalize valuation of the multiple benefits of NBS.
Government of Alberta. 2017. 2016 Census of Canada – Population and Dwelling Release. Treasury Board and Finance, Government of Alberta.
Government of Alberta. 2021. Population Statistics: Alberta population projections. Government of Alberta.
Martino, N., Girling, C. & Lu, Y. 2021. Urban form and livability: socioeconomic and built environment indicators. Buildings & Cities.
Nature and nature-based solutions are beneficial to human health. With access to natural spaces and natural elements such as urban trees, studies have shown that people live longer, have better health overall, and a higher quality of life. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, use of green spaces and parks has risen dramatically worldwide and these examples of NBS in practice have health and well-being benefits to citizens.
Increased green space in urban areas improves air quality by filtering air pollutants and therefore NBS can benefit community members’ respiratory health. Spending time in forests can reduce inflammation and improve outcomes for diseases like chronic pulmonary obstructive disease and lung infections. Urban forests, city trees and natural infrastructure also help to mitigate the impacts of urban heat islands during warmer months, which allows for a more comfortable living temperature as well as shade.
Additionally, NBS provide opportunities for exercise and recreation, particularly at a time when indoor exercise programs are limited by public health measures. Spending time in nature - especially in forested areas - can reduce blood pressure and the risk of heart disease and diabetes, and the recreational and exercise opportunities presented by increased NBS in cities and towns can also benefit cardiovascular health.
Studies have shown that time spent in nature or even near nature (through windows looking onto green space or trees) reduce stress hormones and promote decreased stress, reduced anger and fear, and increased positive feelings. Nature immersion can also strengthen the immune system - when we breathe in airborne chemicals called phytoncides, which are emitted by plants and trees and form a part of their defense mechanisms, our bodies have been shown to produce higher levels of natural killer cells, a vital part of our immune system. Natural killer cells are key in fighting off ailments such as cancer and viral infections. Seniors live longer when they live near walkable green spaces.
These wide-ranging health benefits were especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic. In December 2020, the BC Parks Foundation launched the Park Prescriptions program to allow physicians and other prescribers across Canada to write prescriptions for time in nature in lieu of or in addition to pharmaceutical medications and interventions, formalizing the important relationship between time spent in natural spaces and human health.
Geng, D.(Innes, J., Wu, W. et al.). Impacts of COVID-19 pandemic on urban park visitation: a global analysis. J. For. Res. (2020).
Li, Q., Otsuka, T., Kobayashi, M. et al. Acute effects of walking in forest environments on cardiovascular and metabolic parameters. Eur J Appl Physiol 111, 2845–2853 (2011).
MacKinnon K., van Ham C., Reilly K., Hopkins J. Nature-Based Solutions and Protected Areas to Improve Urban Biodiversity and Health. In: Marselle M., Stadler J., Korn H., Irvine K., Bonn A. (eds) Biodiversity and Health in the Face of Climate Change. (2019) Springer, Cham.
Park Prescriptions Program. Why Nature? BC Parks Foundation. (2019).
Vivier, E., Tomasello, E., Baratin, M. et al. Functions of natural killer cells. Nat Immunol 9, 503–510 (2008).
Zborowsky, T. and Kreitzer, MJ. Creating Optimal Healing Environments in a Health Care Setting. (2019) Minnesota Medicine.
Research has shown that time spent in nature can strengthen mental health and resiliency, including work satisfaction, creativity, and cognition.
Green and blue infrastructure also provide opportunities for citizens to safely meet many social and health needs through recreation. More information on the recreational opportunities provided by NBS in urban and periurban areas can be found in the Social Fabric section below.
Released in May 2020 by Statistics Canada, a study of Canadians’ mental health related to the COVID-19 pandemic indicated nearly a quarter (25%) of respondents assessed their mental health as “fair” or “poor.” This is a significant increase from a 2018 study that showed only 8% of respondents reporting their mental health as fair or poor.
Over half of the 2020 respondents mentioned their mental health had declined after physical distancing measures were put in place by public health orders and a staggering 88% of those surveyed reported at least one symptom of anxiety in the two weeks prior to the survey data collection. Of the respondents who indicated a decline in their mental health as a result of the pandemic, 41% reported experiencing high stress. As the pandemic continues, strains on peoples’ mental health remain, such as increased stress and uncertainty, isolation, substance abuse and financial concerns.
Physiological and psychological benefits are exhibited in people who have better access to and spend more time in nature. While this may seem like an intuitive concept i.e., being in nature makes us feel better, there has been significant research into the connection between access to nature and mental health. A decrease in stress hormones was shown as a measurable reduction of stress in several studies of people walking in a forested environment. Stress reduction is connected to improved outcomes for many mental and physical ailments.
Studies have also shown a lowering of blood pressure following walks in nature versus walks surrounded by urban grey infrastructure, further demonstrating the relaxing effects of nature. Research findings have documented benefits on mood disorders, including anxiety and depression, and a decrease in mental stress, as well as improvements in cognition and collaborative attitudes.
As such, access to nature within urban and periurban areas is important in addressing community mental health challenges that have been exacerbated or brought on as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to providing physiological health benefits to citizens, as outlined in the Physical Health section of this resource. The surge in visitation to parks of all sizes since the onset of the pandemic shows that people are keen to include nature in their overall well-being.
Antonelli, M., Barbieri, G. & Donelli, D. Effects of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) on levels of cortisol as a stress biomarker: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Biometeorol 63, 1117–1134 (2019).
Chun, M.H.; Chang, M.C.; Lee, S. The effects of forest therapy on depression and anxiety in patients with chronic stroke. Int. J. Neurosci. 2017, 127, 199–203.
Kim, W.; Lim, S.; Chung, E.; Woo, J. The Effect of Cognitive Behavior Therapy-Based Psychotherapy Applied in a Forest Environment on Physiological Changes and Remission of Major Depressive Disorder. Psychiatry Investig. 2009, 6, 245–254.
Park Prescriptions Program. Why Nature? BC Parks Foundation. (2019).
Statistics Canada. Canadians' mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. (2020).
There are many positive social and cultural benefits that come with the implementation of NBS. Natural spaces in cities, from intact native forests to wetlands to urban parks and community gardens, provide safe locations for social interaction during the COVID-19 pandemic (depending on public health measures in place), community-building activities and many types of recreation.
NBS can also provide educational and cultural experiences, including connections to Indigenous cultures and knowledge. Research is currently underway in Alberta to explore the topic of community and neighbourhood health. Implementation of NBS in cities and towns across Alberta can also stimulate job creation and investments in local trades.
NBS take a systematic approach and deliver multiple benefits for society, Indigenous reconciliation, human health and well-being, and the economy.
Access to nature allows for a myriad of recreational activities. Nature-based recreation can take place during all seasons and can provide people with physical exercise, mental health support, social interaction, cultural experiences and educational opportunities.
Think of your favourite outdoor recreational activity. Now imagine it being accessible in your community. NBS can help this become a reality for many people in urban and periurban areas. Beyond the benefits NBS provide to the environment, infrastructure, society and the local economy, they also provide diverse recreation opportunities, be it bird watching, nature walks, cross-country skiing, mountain biking, kayaking, gardening, picnics and so much more.
Real Estate Marketability
Research clearly indicates that housing prices increase with improved access to nature, including proximity to parks, tree-lined streets, wetlands (both constructed and natural) and other types of NBS as featured in NBS Implementation Overviews.
According to Marija Bockarjova et al. (2020), housing prices rise 5-20% where NBS are implemented. This is a significant consideration for both policymakers, as well as developers and real estate professionals.
The flip side of this is that it can lead to “green gentrification” which highlights the need for implementation of NBS in low-income neighbourhoods as well. Community health benefits associated with NBS need to be accessible to diverse populations regardless of socioeconomic status.
Bockarjova, W.J.W. Botzen, M.H. van Schie, M.J. Koetse. Property price effects of green interventions in cities: A meta-analysis and implications for gentrification. Environmental Science & Policy, Volume 112, 2020, Pages 293-304, ISSN 1462-9011.