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Coastal parks restore mental health, but environmental and weather conditions impact by how much

Coastal parks provide places for restoring psychological health, but climate change—which is predicted to change factors that impact perceived restorative value of beaches such as temperature, tide levels, and air and water quality—may affect society’s mental health. Leading scientists recommend that climate change adaptation plans include inland open space and shaded parks to provide places of mental restoration as beaches lose their restorative value.

Natural environments are increasingly viewed by scientists as places to recover from stress, improve mood and concentration, and restore mental health. In Orange County, in Southern California, where populations exceed 3 million residents and people can feel crowded, beaches are a restorative environment where people can renew their adaptive resources to meet the demands of a stressful life.

Yet, natural restorative places, such as beaches, are vulnerable to the local threats of climate change. California climate change predictions show that beaches will experience changes in air quality, water quality, sea levels, ambient temperatures, and extreme weather events—all of which could potentially harm beach quality and affect how psychologically restorative visitors find the beach. Until now, few studies have examined how a gradient of changes to a psychologically restorative natural place—as may be experienced under different climate change scenarios—may impact visitors’ perceived mental health benefits. Scientists J. Aaron Hipp from Washington University in St. Louis and Oladele Ogunseitan at the University of California, Irvine, sought to understand how objective and perceived environmental conditions of beach environments impact how restorative visitors to Orange County beaches found their outing.

Hipp and Ogunseitan interviewed beach-goers over a diversity of survey dates, climatic conditions, and changes in environmental quality. The scientists asked questions to understand how restorative beach goers found their visit: how much they sensed they had escaped a stressful environment or occupation, their connectedness to the temporal and spatial scope of the place visited, visitor interest and engagement, and how much the environment supports the person’s mental health needs. Survey participants were also asked about their perception of the current weather, air temperature, ocean temperature, and cloud cover. Objective climatic and environmental quality data from state and national monitoring stations were collected for the day and time of each survey. Using historic temperature averages, the scientists determined which days’ temperatures would be associated with different climate change scenarios. The diversity of climatic and environmental conditions across the 1000+ surveys allowed Hipp and Ogunseitan to compare and contrast the perceived restorative value of the beach below and above predicted California climate change scenarios.

Visitors to the study sites found the beaches psychologically restorative. Those who experienced more stress fatigue in daily life found the beach the most restorative.

Perceived psychological restorativeness of the beach was significantly influenced by gradients in environmental quality and conditions—both as perceived by the participants and objectively measured. Visitors found the beach more psychologically restoring on days objectively cooler than climate change scenarios. The scientists suspect that when people find temperatures too hot to reach a physical and psychological comfort level, they will be unable to gain relief from psychological stresses on their visit. Visitors found the beach to be more restorative when they perceived air and water quality to be healthy and on days that objectively had better air and water quality; everything else being constant, the odds of perceiving the beach as psychologically restorative were three times greater when visiting the beach on a good air quality day. The odds of finding the beach psychologically restorative were 30% lower when a participant visited the beach at high tide, whereas low tide was perceived as more restorative. The scientists suspect that this may be due to crowding caused by the smaller physical space available on the beach during high tide. 

This study indicates that climate change will impact the effectiveness of psychological restoration and may lead to decreased beach visitation. Temperature, tide, and air and water quality—aspects of the beach associated with mental restorativeness—are all expected to be impacted by climate change. Climate change adaptation predictions suggest that people will prefer shaded open spaces during extreme temperatures, a preference which may become important as climate changes. Thus, the authors recommend that in order to ensure that people will continue to have access to psychologically restorative areas, building and maintaining access to shaded urban parks and natural open areas aside from coastal parks should become part of climate change adaptation plans.  

 
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Original Paper

J. Aaron Hipp, Oladele A. Ogunseitan. “Effect of environmental conditions on perceived psychological restorativeness of coastal parks.” Journal of Environmental Psychology. 31 (2011) 421-429. DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2011.08.008
 

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