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The power of blue and green spaces

Updated: Jan 10

This piece was initially published in January 2023 by Scribbles e-zine, theme colour


Everything we do, everything we think, everything we feel, happens within an environment. For some, outdoor environments such as gardens, parks or forests are known as ‘green spaces’ and water environments such as lakes, rivers or beaches known as ‘blue spaces’.1 Notably, colour was the feature selected to label these settings, with colour research commonly linking2 both blue and green with feelings of calmness or relaxation.3


Image: Views from Wonga country, Arthurs Seat State Park



Environmental research has shown that time in these green and/or blue spaces is associated with a range of physical and mental health benefits.1,4,5 Physical benefits include improvements in blood pressure,6 stress hormone cortisol levels7 or the immune system;8 psychological improvements such as reduced symptoms of anxiety9 or depression;10,11 and improved overall wellbeing or quality of life.12,13 Other benefits are reported for cognitive functioning after time in green spaces such as improved working memory,14 cognitive flexibility,14 and creativity.15 Indeed, the benefits are such that medical practitioners across the world prescribe time in nature to support their patients' health and wellbeing, known as ‘green prescriptions’.16 


When asking people about preferred colours, blue is often most commonly cited, starting in infancy in Western countries, with green also preferred once older.3 Blue is even a preferred flower colour alongside white and orange, with blue flowers identified as relaxing while orange and yellow as uplifting.17 One explanation for colour preferences is that people associate certain colours with things that they like; Ecological Valance Theory.18 Others suggest evolutionary proposals like Habitat Selection Theory19 in that we physically evolved in natural spaces with water, vegetation and grassy savannahs providing resources essential for survival. The colour of these important elements would have been a key feature for their identification. Blue is associated with clear skies and clean water,18 or brightly coloured flowers are easily seen against green backgrounds, suggesting locations for fruits or bulbs to eat.20 Such proposals may explain preferences for certain environmental colours and the many benefits identified.


Of course, there is not just one single representation of each colour, with different shades resulting from variations in hue and saturation, or if influenced by nearby colours or available light. These variations can impact people's experience and emotional reactions.21,22 ark green has been associated with feelings of stability or calmness (perhaps illustrative of dense vegetation) while green-yellow and bright green have been associated with happiness and strength, and bright green with feeling active, cheerful or excited (perhaps illustrative of new growth).21


Regardless of research indicating certain colours as preferred by most or associated with specific emotions, your personal preference for one or more colours is likely to yield benefits to you.17 So choose the colours that you like for your environment, the ones that make you feel good and enjoy them. Seek out time in the natural world, which provides an array of colourful elements for you to explore. If you can, add some brightly coloured flowers or green leafy pot plants to your indoor space, spend time next to a river or look up while walking under tree canopies. Time in nature, be it green space or blue space, is good for our physical and mental health, and part of that contribution is coming from the colours within the environments you choose.

 

References

1.            Gascon M, Zijlema W, Vert C, White MP, Nieuwenhuijsen MJ. Outdoor blue spaces, human health and well-being: A systematic review of quantitative studies. International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health. 2017;220(8):1207-1221.

2.            Wilms L, Oberfeld D. Color and emotion: effects of hue, saturation, and brightness. Psychological Research. 2018;82(5):896-914.

3.            Elliot AJ. A Historically Based Review of Empirical Work on Color and Psychological Functioning: Content, Methods, and Recommendations for Future Research. Review of General Psychology. 2019;23(2):177-200.

4.            White MP, Elliott LR, Gascon M, Roberts B, Fleming LE. Blue space, health and well-being: A narrative overview and synthesis of potential benefits. Environmental research. 2020;191:110169.

5.            Jimenez MP, DeVille NV, Elliott EG, et al. Associations between Nature Exposure and Health: A Review of the Evidence. International Journal of Environmental Research & Public Health. 2021;18(9):4790.

6.            Ideno Y, Hayashi K, Abe Y, et al. Blood pressure-lowering effect of Shinrin-yoku (Forest bathing): a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2017;17(1):409.

7.            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. International Journal of Biometeorology. 2019;63(8):1117-1134.

8.            Li Q. Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environmental health and preventive medicine. 2010;15(1):9-17.

9.            Kotera Y, Richardson M, Sheffield D. Effects of Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy on Mental Health: a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. 2020.

10.          Lee I, Choi H, Bang K-S, Kim S, Song M, Lee B. Effects of Forest Therapy on Depressive Symptoms among Adults: A Systematic Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2017;14(3):321.

11.          Rosa CD, Larson LR, Collado S, Profice CC. Forest therapy can prevent and treat depression: Evidence from meta-analyses. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening. 2021;57:126943.

12.          Corazon SS, Sidenius U, Poulsen DV, Gramkow MC, Stigsdotter UK. Psycho-Physiological Stress Recovery in Outdoor Nature-Based Interventions: A Systematic Review of the Past Eight Years of Research. International Journal of Environmental Research & Public Health. 2019;16(10):1711.

13.          Morita E, Fukuda S, Nagano J, et al. Psychological effects of forest environments on healthy adults: Shinrin-yoku (forest-air bathing, walking) as a possible method of stress reduction. Public Health. 2007;121(1):54-63.

14.          Stevenson MP, Schilhab T, Bentsen P. Attention Restoration Theory II: a systematic review to clarify attention processes affected by exposure to natural environments. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B. 2018;21(4):227-268.

15.          Williams KJH, Lee KE, Hartig T, Sargent LD, Williams NSG, Johnson KA. Conceptualising creativity benefits of nature experience: Attention restoration and mind wandering as complementary processes. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 2018;59:36-45.

16.          World Economic Forum. Health: What are green prescriptions and which countries offer them? 2022; https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/02/green-prescriptions-health-wellbeing/. Accessed 12 January, 2023.

17.          Zhang L, Dempsey N, Cameron R. Flowers – Sunshine for the soul! How does floral colour influence preference, feelings of relaxation and positive up-lift? Urban Forestry & Urban Greening. 2023;79:127795.

18.          Palmer SE, Schloss KB. An ecological valence theory of human color preference. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). 2010;107(19):8877-8882.

19.          Heerwagen JH, Orians GH. Humans, habitats, and aesthetics. In: Kellert SR, Wilson EO, eds. The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington, DC: Island Press; 1993:138-172.

20.          Hůla M, Flegr J. What flowers do we like? The influence of shape and color on the rating of flower beauty. PeerJ. 2016;4:e2106.

21.          Sadek M, Sayaka S, Fujii E, Koriesh E, Moghazy E, El Fatah YJJFAE. Human emotional and psycho-physiological responses to plant color stimuli. Journal of Food, Agriculture & Environment. 2013;11:1584-1591.

22.          Kuzinas, A., Noiret, N., Bianchi, R., & Laurent, É. The effects of image hue and semantic content on viewer’s emotional self-reports, pupil size, eye movements, and skin conductance response. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. 2016;10(3),360-371.

 

 

 

 

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