There are few occasions when as adults we are flooded with childlike awe and wonder. Such moments stay with us. Visiting the UAE's Empty Quarter, also known as Rub Al Khali, and seeing the largest contiguous sand-based desert undulating into the distance for the first time was one such occasion for me. Another was my first visit to the UAE's mangroves. I had never seen such an ecological phenomenon; was the sea pretending to be a forest or a forest pretending to be the sea?
I contemplated the answer last weekend as the opening of the mangrove boardwalk at Jubail Island gave me an opportunity to immerse myself into this mesmerising and vital coastal ecosystem.
I walked the two kilometres of creaking wooden boards along with thousands of visitors. The adults took selfies while the children marvelled, perhaps for the first time, at fish in their natural habitat.
Much has been written about the effects of green spaces on our health and well-being. Back in the 18th century, pioneers of mental health reform like the English businessman and philanthropist William Tuke and the French physician Philippe Pinel saw healing value in landscapes, gardens and gardening.
They advocated the relocation of asylum patients to the countryside, where nature could work her calming and restorative magic. Tuke and Pinel’s philanthropic intuitions are today supported by decades of research. The effects of green spaces have given rise to the growing field of eco-therapy that relies on techniques such as horticultural interventions – that you and I know as gardening – and wilderness excursions, that is nothing more than walking in nature.
Beyond mental health, contemporary research has also demonstrated that green spaces can affect the body as well as the mind. In a study published in the journal Science, patients who were recovering from surgery healed faster and consumed fewer painkillers than those recovering in wards without a view of greenery. Studies have also found that people who visit parks report higher levels of well-being than those who don't.
More recently, however, evidence is emerging that blue spaces have a similarly positive impact. Whether it is the ocean, a river, a lake, a pond or even a fountain, like their green counterparts, blue spaces appear to do wonders for our mental health and well-being. A review published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, looked at 35 previous blue space research studies and found an overall positive impact. In general, people living closer to water had improved mental health, well-being and even reported higher levels of physical activity.
Another study published in the journal Global Environmental Change explored the relationship between well-being and one's immediate environmental surroundings. This study used a smartphone app to ask people about their well-being at random intervals – a technique psychologists call experience sampling. After analysing responses from 20,000 participants across the UK, it was clear that respondents felt significantly better when they were outdoors, in natural environments and that marine and coastal areas were particularly conducive to well-being.
While more research is required, it is clear that natural spaces make people feel good. And this might prompt cities across the world to enhance and reclaim blue spaces. Therein lies an opportunity for urban planners. The mangrove boardwalk is an excellent example of this. Similarly, organisations concerned about employee well-being might consider including environmentally friendly water features in their refurbishment plans and in buildings that come up in the future.
Among environmental psychologists, there is now a bit of a debate about which has the most positive impact on our well-being: blue spaces or green. For me the mangrove forest circumvents this debate. Their blue and green, the forest and the sea, is seamlessly intertwined. Those of us who become frequent visitors to the mangrove boardwalk will receive a double boost of well-being, whether we realise it or not.
Justin Thomas is a psychology professor at Zayed University