ESPP Faculty leading study on improving health through nature

August 26, 2019 - Caroline Brooks and Amber Pearson

Faculty from Michigan State University received a $3.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for an experiment to improve the health of Detroit’s residents by cultivating green spaces in the city.

Amber Pearson, assistant professor of geography in MSU’s College of Social Science, is leading the five-year study that will examine how biodiversity in an urban area impacts health and wellness.

Each year, Pearson and her field team will assess the health of 700 residents across low-income Detroit neighborhoods while the City of Detroit and the Audubon Society – who Pearson began collaborating with over two years ago – restore the unmaintained parks in communities.

Pearson’s study is the first of its kind to examine the impact of ecological restoration – a process of recovering an ecosystem that has been damaged or destroyed – using health data from people who have had both visual, auditory and physical exposure to environmental changes over time. Previous research suggests that parks may reduce stress and increase physical activity, Pearson explained. However, the causal health relationships have been difficult to establish.

“Individuals living in socioeconomically deprived inner cities have disproportionately high rates of cardiovascular disease, cancers, Type 2 diabetes and obesity, which can come as a result of stress and lack of physical activity,” said Pearson, who has been coordinating the strategy with the city and Audubon Society for two years. “We are going beyond previous studies by measuring both physical wellbeing and stress to see if restored green spaces yield positive health benefits.”

By building relationships with churches and community partnerships in Detroit, as well as going door-to-door through neighborhoods, Pearson’s team is recruiting participants to establish baseline health measurements. They will be tested annually to document any health changes as parks go through restoration, providing the residents with outdoor places to engage with their community.

“Over the last few decades, Detroit has had to cut public services that were previously provided – one of which was the maintenance of some parks,” Pearson said. “While parks can certainly be beneficial in some places, they have the potential for having negative effects on communities if they’re not cared for. Parks can become places for crime, for dumping, eye-sores and places you wouldn’t want your kids to play. Ensuring these public places are supporting public health is an important focus for me personally.”

Pearson explained that the positive changes and investments in Detroit have been largely geographically focused on downtown and midtown – not in high vacancy neighborhoods – leaving few freely accessible, quality places for the residents of such neighborhoods.

Previous research on ecological restoration has predominantly been in middle-income, non-minority populations, making Pearson’s study in Detroit critical in learning about causation and health benefits for understudied populations.

The researchers hope to see some immediate benefits of their work – such as perceptions of neighborhoods and outdoor physical activity; other factors, such as lowering BMI and improving cardio-metabolic health, take longer to come to fruition.

“I hope to see the health benefits from Audubon’s intervention and that participants feel empowered through their involvement in giving the city evidence for how it should be investing in resources and public spaces,” Pearson said.