Urban Gardening Promotes Emotional Wellbeing, New Humphrey School Study Says

July 8, 2020
an urban garden
A new study from the Humphrey School finds that home gardening improves the well being of city residents. Photo: Getty Images/firina

As urban areas strive to enhance their residents’ quality of life, research from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs shows that access to gardening could have a profound effect on a person’s emotional wellbeing and help address sustainable development goals. 

“It’s important to remember that more than 50 percent of the world’s population lives in an urban environment,” said study co-author Yingling Fan, professor in regional policy and planning in the Humphrey School. “Many sustainable development goals are where the environment and human health and wellbeing meet.”

The study, published in the June 2020 issue of Landscape and Urban Planning, examined data collected from more than 370 randomly selected participants in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. Participants were asked to input emotional wellbeing-linked data into Daynamica, a smartphone app that allows users to track activities and rank their emotions during that activity.

The study combined demographic data, exit interview answers, and geo-location information provided via Daynamica to determine where the gardening took place. 

The study found:

  • Gardening at home is associated with high emotional wellbeing, similar to biking and walking
  • Vegetable gardening is associated with higher emotional wellbeing than ornamental gardening
  • Household gardening is the only activity in this study where women and people with low incomes reported higher emotional wellbeing than men and those with higher incomes 
  • Emotional wellbeing while gardening at home alone is no different from gardening with someone else

The researchers say these findings show how urban gardening can meet a city’s planning goals. It can do so by creating a more livable city; by helping to address food security in urban areas; and by meeting the United Nations’ 11th sustainable development goal to make cities more inclusive, resilient, and sustainable.

“Our research shows that city planners and leaders should include vegetable gardening, particularly at home, among the more common livability standards cities consider, such as cycling and walking infrastructure,” said Fan, who was the lead inventor of the Daynamica app and has studied transportation-related happiness using Daynamica data. 

Fan and Kirti Das, Fan’s Humphrey School PhD advisee, collaborated with Princeton University researcher Graham Ambrose, the paper’s first author, and Princeton Professor Anu Ramaswami, the paper’s corresponding author.

Fan and Das work on happy cities and administered the Minneapolis Well-Being Survey used in this paper. Ramaswami and Ambrose study urban food systems and developed the gardening-related questions and the comparative analysis in this paper. All researchers were at the Humphrey School when this study was initiated as part of the Sustainable Healthy Cities Network, with support from the National Science Foundation. 

While this study is one of the first to evaluate the emotional wellbeing benefits tied to urban household gardening in North America, the researchers acknowledge there are places that gardening may not be advantageous, such as areas where soil and water quality are poor due to contamination, rendering any food grown there unsafe for consumption.

Fan and Ramaswami are collaborating on future work to evaluate the nuances between household and community gardening. 

Key study results are also available in this article from Princeton University.