Shrinking Natural Public Spaces And The Decline In Mental Health

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public spaces, Ecopsychology
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It wasn’t until recently I came across the world of Ecopsychology. It refers to the psychology arising from the individual’s natural environment conditions. In layman’s terms, Ecopsychology is a discipline that recognises the positive impact that nature can have on mental health. 

There’s an entire team of researchers and mental health practitioners diving deeper into Ecopsychology. According to research, living amidst nature can not only increase an individual’s sense of well-being and acts of altruism, but it can also help combat mental health issues and stress in general. 

Since we just celebrated World Environment Day, I would like to take the opportunity to share my own experience with reduced natural public spaces in my immediate locality. Ecopsychology is deeply personal to people and arises from their individual experiences. However, since the personal is the political, ecopsychology perspectives are an essential part of political discourse specifically those concerning public health and wellness. 

In my immediate environment, there has been a recent decline in the number of natural public spaces. The current largest encroachment of nature project in South Bombay, where I live, is the coastal road being built over the Arabian Sea. Marine Drive, what used to be a beautiful drive back from school while looking at the ocean around a decade ago, has now transformed into a construction site with live tractors, cement flying in the air and a yellow coloured barricade directly preventing the sea view. This is just the beginning. 

Don’t even get me started on the encroachment over coral life in the Arabian Sea to build the infamous and much-debated coastal road. While I can’t directly say that the coastal road is the reason for people’s declining mental health, am I wrong to say that it does have a role to play in Mumbaikar’s prevailing sense of anxiety about already prevailing climate issues across the city. 

Ecopsychologists would say mental health is directly impacted by public natural spaces in the city. Most of South Mumbai is aware that due to rising sea levels, their homes might be submerged underwater by 2050. More than anything, they are also aware that despite having this knowledge, their home prices are skyrocketing and they cannot just move out of their sea-facing houses. This has already created a deep sense of anxiety among many inhabitants of these beautiful homes including me. We don’t need a coastal project to remind of us that climate change is happening faster due to human activity. Mumbai coastal houses might in fact be submerged way before 2050, making 2050 look like a liberal and unrealistic estimate. 

To add to that, news of demolished park spaces for construction in the area is enough to raise the level of anxiety of residents at Nepeansea Road and surrounding areas of South Mumbai which lack public open spaces. Even the infamous Priyadarshini Park was going to see the construction of a fire site around 2017, which the residents of the area opposed for protecting the environment. 

I’ve realised that nature has the power to unite us politically more than anything else. I’ve seen even the most apolitical people get riled up about losing a public park to which they had access. The entire city united to protest against the debated Aarey Forest Metro project and create petitions. Similarly, petitions have also been created for the coastal road. This is just the beginning. 

There is a pressing need to protect our public environmental spaces, our parks, gardens, local trees and even marine life close to where we live. There is a need for urgent local community action in this sector to ensure our parks are preserved. While not everyone may be interested in politics, there is also an urgent need to spread political awareness about environmental issues plaguing the city. The diversity of opinion based on age groups in the city is interesting. I have met numerous old people who constantly walk in Priyadarshini Park and compare the city’s old natural charms to the current concrete jungle it has become. They often compare the lack of open spaces to the lack of open space in the youth’s minds. It is interesting to see how they’re still living in a nostalgic version of Bombay constantly reminded of what Bombay used to be and stuck with what it isn’t. 

On the contrary, most of the youth are apolitical and indifferent about public spaces since they spend more time on their screens than in public parks. There’s little most of them are doing to save or conserve the local environment. 

Research in Ecopsychology in fact proves that public parks are most beneficial to people who use their screens too often. Most people become less altruistic and lose connectivity because of increased screen usage. However, spending time in nature can help people restore their sense of balance in life and find peace in the green views offered by nature. A study has gone as far as to prove people living amidst nature are more productive and less likely to make mistakes at work. Living amidst nature can create a positive balance for all of us. 

To conclude, I am saddened by the lack of public environment-friendly spaces in my city. I hope to see more parks in my locality. I also hope to see more people uniting to ensure those parks see the light of the day and continue to stay alive. While nature keeps us alive and ensures that we feel peaceful, we must preserve nature and live in a balanced harmonious relationship with the environment too. This World Environment Day, I hope we all pledge to do our bit to conserve the environment. The world might just become more open and free space. 

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