More Evidence That Scenic Environments Keep People Healthy

By Elizabeth Preston | December 1, 2015 7:26 pm

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If the view outside your home is picture-perfect, you’re more likely to be the picture of health. A study in Great Britain found that even taking into account poverty and a host of other factors, people in prettier locations report being healthier.

Chanuki Seresinhe, a graduate student at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, explains that the question of whether living in picturesque surroundings is good for your health “seems to come up again and again.” A study in Toronto, for example, found a link between residents’ self-reported health and the number of trees in their neighborhoods.

But it’s hard to answer the question conclusively. To start with, how do you measure a neighborhood’s beauty? Rather than counting trees, Seresinhe used data from an online game called Scenic-or-Not. The game is hosted by her research group, the Data Science Lab at the Warwick Business School. Visitors to the website can see photos from all around England, Scotland and Wales. They rate these photos on a 10-point scale from “not scenic” to “very scenic.” A running leaderboard shows the scenes that users have rated the prettiest, as well as the absolute ugliest.

From the site, Seresinhe collected 1.5 million votes on 217,000 images. If Great Britain were carved into a grid of squares 1 kilometer on a side, the photos would cover 95 percent of the squares.

She found that average “scenicness” scores across England were linked to amounts of green space. (The measurements of green space came from a database of land use in England.) If a space was greener, in other words, people were more likely to call it “scenic.” But the overlap wasn’t perfect.

Next, Seresinhe compared both scenicness and green space to data from the 2011 Census for England and Wales. Census respondents had rated their own health as “Very good or good,” “Fair,” or “Bad or very bad.” Since socioeconomic factors might influence both a person’s health and where he or she lives, Seresinhe controlled her analysis for several variables across geographic areas: income, employment, education, housing, crime, and living conditions.

She found that even after accounting for these factors, people in more scenic locations were healthier. “When we look at differences in reports of health,” Seresinhe says, “it is crucial to also account for how scenic the locations are, not just how much green space there is.”

To further understand the relationship between green spaces and pretty spaces, Seresinhe did a pixel-by-pixel analysis of the colors in some Scenic-or-Not photos. “We discovered that the most scenic photos do not contain the highest proportion of the color green,” she says. “Instead, very scenic photos also tend to contain large proportions of gray, brown and blue—perhaps corresponding to mountains or lakes.” Unscenic photos could also contain green, but unsightly manmade objects might have brought down their scores.

It’s yet another clue that attractive surroundings are good for our health. But for anyone trying to improve community health by beautifying a neighborhood, Seresinhe says, just adding greenery may not be enough. Sorry, Landulph electricity station.

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The electricity station at Landulph, Cornwall, currently the lowest-rated picture on Scenic-or-Not.


Images: top by Adam Wyles (via Flickr); bottom  by Kevin Hale.

Seresinhe CI, Preis T, & Moat HS (2015). Quantifying the Impact of Scenic Environments on Health. Scientific reports, 5 PMID: 26603464

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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Asian steppes are all but treeless, as are the Middle East, Arctic Circle lands, Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands. Given that “people in more scenic locations were healthier,” why aren’t those vast blasted heaths’ populations sickly? Consider 300+ million examples in the Middle East. Are a billion sub-Saharan Africans happy happy living in jungle rain forest?

  • Andrew Kiener

    Have to point out that this was based on people’s self-reported health status on the census. So it’s not telling us about their actual health; it’s telling us about their perception of their health. “People in pretty places feel a little bit better about their circumstances than people in ugly places” is not at all the same thing as “people in pretty places are healthier”. Did the researchers claim that this study reflected actual health or is that this author’s take on it?

  • issyk

    In my experience, the shapes contribute mightily to scenic-or-not. Squared off or sharp edged shapes tend to be not scenic where curves, particularly S curves, add to the “scenic-ness” of a place. (50 years as a photographer).

    • OWilson

      Shapes are indeed important to the artistic eye.

      But symmetrically curved power station cooling towers with puffy white clouds of exhaust fumes, will; never make the “scenic” definition :)

      • issyk

        Agreed. They still have very hard edges, not soft , flowy edges. They also will never be beautiful because we all know what they are!

        • OWilson

          Is the Eiffel Tower inherently beautiful, or have we just grown to love it?

          I never figured it out.

  • OWilson

    Scenic surroundings are often a function of economic considerations, indicating choice in ones location.
    To be able to live where you choose is an obvious adjunct to basic happiness.
    But the demands these days for quick and simple answers, override the importance of controlling for all factors in these throwaway “studies”.

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Inkfish

Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.

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