The Scientific Case For The Suburbs

A surprising link between brain volume and access to green space suggests that being close to nature has myriad benefits.

The Scientific Case For The Suburbs
[Source Images: Blake Wheeler/Unsplash, Jolygon/iStock]

Every urbanite with a young child has The Talk. And not just once, but many times, with many people. Will you move to the suburbs? No, right? But maybe? Because it’s cheaper. And safer. And easier. And the schools. And . . .


And now, there’s another “and” to add to that list. Because according to new research led by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, children who grow up around green space grow larger brains–or at least brains that are bigger in certain areas.

The study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, analyzed 253 school-aged children, measuring the amount of nearby green space through satellite imagery and then measuring the tissue in their brains through MRI imaging. What it found was a positive correlation between green space and brain tissue. Kids who were around more green had more white and gray matter in the prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for complex thought) and both hemispheres of the brain.

[Photo: Blake Wheeler/Unsplash]
So does your volume of brain matter really matter all that much? Generally, yes. In the case of this new finding, researchers were actually doing further analysis on a study from last year, in which over 2,500 children were given cognitive tests over 12 months. Those with greater access to outdoor green space had measurably better memory and attentiveness. This new follow-up study measuring brain matter simply gives us the physical reason why.

The question remains, though, what mechanism is causing the correlation between one’s brain size and their environment. There might not be one reason but many, according to scientists. The Biophilia Hypothesis has long suggested that people simply have an evolutionary affinity for nature, and therefore we have a constant psychological reinforcement for being in it. Green space also changes the environment in important, measurable ways: Green areas are measurably lower in air pollution and noise, plus they have a positive impact on the microbes that make their way inside nearby buildings. This latter topic is known as the urban biome, and you can read much more about it here.

The researchers admit that their own study is yet to be duplicated, and they need to do more research controlling for types of vegetation, and the actual access that children have to it, to really understand the thresholds of the phenomenon at play. But ultimately, we might not need to know why this is happening to take advantage of it. By sheer scarcity, green space is the most valuable resource in any urban environment. Now, we have one more reason to not just protect it, but to create more of it.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.