Surveying scientific literature, a 2017 article in the British Journal of Psychology spoke of the positive relationship between “greenspace” and mental health and well-being.
“Individuals have less mental distress, less anxiety and depression, greater well-being and healthier cortisol profiles when living in urban areas with more greenspace compared with less greenspace,” said the paper by two authors from the University of Essex.
“If you’re going to be looking at UP, it is an ideal place already, as far as I’m concerned,” Armin Sarthou, UP College of Architecture dean and former UP Vice President for Development, says, talking about institutions with physical features supportive of the occupants’ mental health and well-being.
“The past presidents have seen to that. It was the vision of previous administrations that made sure we have a green environment,” Sarthou points out. UP campuses were granted large tracts of land, which make them ideal greenspaces, he adds. Foremost among these are UP Diliman, UP Los Baños, UP Visayas, and UP Mindanao.
“There’s an architectural effect [in open spaces] that gives a feeling of expressiveness, freedom, etc., as opposed to cramped spaces,” Sarthou says.
“You have breathing space,” he continues. “That’s very, very important to the general well-being of the occupants. Without breathing space, you feel hemmed in, and that probably contributes to that state of affairs [where psychosocial problems are on the rise].”
Greenspace also affords people “green exercise” or the use of natural environment for physical activity, which is also “psychologically restorative,” the paper in the British journal also says.
“You have the venue for physical exertion or exercise. So on the practical side, UP will give you that opportunity, to walk and to run, and so on,” adds Prof. Dolores Madrid of the same college as Sarthou.
Indeed, for many, UP is space in which to frolic, jog, fly a Frisbee, walk the morning, afternoon, or night, and where one can run around on the grass.
And to meditate, says Sarthou, like in the Sunken Garden of UP Diliman. Or take a nap under a tree.
UP is thus the classic greenspace, associated with mental health and well-being of urbanites.
More than just greenspace
Causality between greenspace and mental health and well-being has not been established in scientific literature, warns the BJP paper. But there are theories.
For Dr. Portia Grace Fernandez-Marcelo of the UP College of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, the color green is integral to the concept of home. It is a familiar color. “It is what should be and is seen typically.” Being naturally occurring in plants and trees, the color soothes humankind. “We are used to it,” Marcelo says. “Scientifically, it has a broad band in the visible light spectrum, thus we see this all the time, and familiarity gives comfort.”
Braving two to four hours of traffic every day, Fernandez-Marcelo returns from work in congested Manila to the greenery of UP Diliman, and immediately feels refreshed. She echoes the feeling of other UP Manila colleagues who have chosen UP Diliman as their residence.
The concept of home is also affirmed by the architects Sarthou and Madrid as essential in making spaces nurture mental health and well-being. This is especially true for students who are dragged away from home to be able to study in college.
“It’s not merely how a space is used but it is also the meaning of the space to a person,” Madrid emphasizes. Sarthou says that this is exactly the point behind the current UP Diliman administration’s thrust for pride of place. “The Chancellor wants to give UP students, faculty, staff, and anybody who has to do with UP a sense of belongingness and a sense of ownership: It’s home for you.”
What exactly is home in psycho-physiological terms? “Home, tahanan, with its root word tahan: [when you feel] comfort, safe, secure. It means stress neurotransmitters are not in excess; the mind and body are in a quiescent and relaxed state; stress hormones and neurotransmitters are held at bay,” Marcelo explains.
That is why UP’s greenspace would not provide its supposed emotional benefits if it fails to be part of “home”—that is, if it is uncontrolled, says Sarthou, or does not feel safe and secure.
“Walking from Ylanan to your office at NISMED, there are trees, shade, and breeze, and [across the Lagoon], no vehicles to watch out for. There’s comfort and safety,” Dolores says. “But you have to remember that it was also on that route, in the 1980s, where somebody was raped and killed.”
By the same token, UP Manila and the other smaller campuses, despite the lack of open spaces, still feel like home precisely because of the proximity of the occupants to each other and the security afforded by the smaller, fenced-in areas.
Yet many of UP constituents in the city centers yearn for open spaces and end up, like Dr. Fernandez-Marcelo and her family, braving the traffic and the long commute, taking refuge, making a home amongst the green open spaces of the more rustic campuses.
UP campuses with more than adequate hectarage continue to provide such a refuge, keeping greenery that is welcoming and not alienating, being natural and almost raw, manicured just enough to maintain visibility in the undergrowth while not telling people to keep off the grass, Sarthou and Madrid maintain.
And neither have the smaller campuses—already using their smallness to their advantage in keeping the community close and familiar—given up on greenspace. Based on recent reports, UP Manila is building vertically to afford itself more open spaces with greenery; UP Baguio maintains its pine trees, fills available space with expressionistic art, and maximizes the rolling terrain to keep people walking and climbing; and UP Cebu is still home to several towering age-old trees and open greens despite its new and rising structures.
With the lush harbinger of mental health and well-being, many people in UP are glad the green is still there, when many in the world are losing it.