"Contact with the natural environment can be an antidote to some of the unhealthy aspects of an urban environment." This statement came out of a seminar on mental health organised by the Richmond Foundation.
Marking its 15th anniversary, while taking a leaf from this year's theme for World Health Day, the foundation invited a psychiatrist and psychologist to speak on the effects of the environment on mental health.
Studies which show a doubling of the rate of schizophrenia in urban over rural areas were discussed by consultant psychiatrist Anton Grech. Moving from the country to a built-up area in childhood increases the risk of this brain disorder even when other factors such as age, sex, family history and drug use have been ruled out.
In cities, mutual trust and the safety of neighbours, the glue that holds society together, can break down resulting in social isolation. The way urban areas are designed can sometimes contribute to this. The health effects of infra-noise (low-level noise) and vibration from building sites or machinery require more study.
Believing that cities should serve people and nature, visionary architects and activists in 1970s California created 'Urban Ecology'. They used urban planning, ecology, and public participation to help design healthier cities together.
Social psychologist Marilyn Clark dealt with the impact of social environment on mental health. Environmental criminologist Saviour Formosa spoke on the impact of land use and environmental stressors. He questioned whether social cohesion would be present in tall building developments.
Looking at Malta's urban ecology, he compared offender hotspots and the impact of sprawl. One map in his presentation showed how rare it has become to stand anywhere in this country without seeing something that is built. Man-made developments dominate the view.
Another map addressed the impact of shadow from high buildings as they deprive neighbours of simple joys such as sunshine in their backyard. The complex floor area ratio formula used by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority when justifying building heights should take open space more into account where density is a problem.
Dr Formosa pointed out the value of putting environment directives into action. The physical and mental health aspect will improve on its own if the environmental aspect is taken care of.
Reporting progress is essential but despite having collected data, Malta still does not have the expertise in place to fully analyse it. A holistic approach must be adopted to bring scientists from the natural, social and technical spheres together so that data may be seen comprehensively.
Professor of anatomy Marie-Therese Camilleri Podestà spoke of the importance of contact with plants, animals and natural green surroundings as the human habitat becomes more urbanised.
Therapy, which includes the use of plants and landscapes, has been seen to alleviate irritability, restore concentration and lower the power of stress. Parks stimulate physical activity and social cohesion while visual exposure to nature can be beneficial.
Out of the three political speakers, Labour MP Roderick Galdes criticised the precedents set by certain developments despite their incompatibility with the structure plan. Architects manage to get permits which create a domino effect, he said.
Nationalist MP and architect Philip Mifsud countered this argument by saying: "The people are our checkpoint". He was checked by Astrid Vella from Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar who was present in the audience. She said that this was the same architect handling a number of sanctioned permit applications for structures built outside the development zone.
On the subject of noise pollution from building sites, still not clearly regulated with legal time restrictions, Mr Mifsud underlined the need to set a term when noise was not permissible. He said that the law was changing to allow action over ODZ infringements without waiting for the planning process.
Carmel Cacopardo from Alternattiva Demokratika said that truly sustainable development had to be measured by social and environmental gain, not just economic gain.
The Gross Domestic Product was being used as a yardstick when it is not acceptable on its own as a measure of whether sustainability is being achieved. People are paying the price for those who are abusing but this must be thrown back onto whoever is carrying out the abuse, he said.
Effects of stress such as road rage are a tangible sign of congested traffic. Frustration and anger at not being heard, feelings of despair that come with losing control over the quality of our surroundings and depression stemming from a simple loss of sunlight are creeping up on us.