Amber L. Pearson

Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences, Michigan State University
Adjunct Research Fellow - University of Otago

Theme 1: Relationships between natural areas and health in cities

Increasingly, health geographers, psychologists and public health practitioners have become interested in aspects of cities which may promote health. A growing area of research is how ‘green’ spaces such as parks, forests, and meadows may foster physical activity, lower blood pressure and promote relaxation, improved cognition and enhanced sleep. More recently, this focus has expanded to include ‘blue’ spaces including oceanic and fresh water bodies. Still, there are many gaps in the literature and inconsistencies in findings. Much of Dr. Pearson’s current and ongoing research aims to address these issues.

Dr. Pearson has explored how residential exposure to both ‘green’ and ‘blue’ space may foster better mental health outcomes in cities, particularly in New Zealand. She first examined the ecological relationship between neighborhood-level proximity or access to green space and mental health in Auckland, New Zealand – the most populous city in the country. She found that decreased distance to useable green space and increased proportion of green space within the neighborhood were associated with lower rates of anxiety/mood disorder, suggesting that the benefits of green space on mental health may relate both to active participation in green spaces near the home and also to visual exposure to greenness.

Auckland, New Zealand

Yet, the quantification of visual exposure to nature lacked in development. So, Dr. Pearson and colleagues developed a novel geospatial technique to quantify visual exposure to greenness, called the Vertical Visibility Index (VVI). The scores for ‘greenness’ calculated using the index were then compared to scores calculated using a Google Earth Street Map Image (as a gold standard), yielding a strong, significant correlation (r = 0.863, p < 0.001). In other words, the VVI yields similar results to what can be seen in an image taken at a location. This new method is a valid tool which can be used the accurate representation of ‘green’ and ‘blue’ space visibility from a human perspective.

In Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, Dr. Pearson and colleagues also tested the relationship between this new visibility score and individual-level mental health, using K-10 scores. K-10 scores are a simple measure of psychological distress, designed for large sample population studies where scores range from 0 to 40 (higher values indicate increased distress). In contrast to their first study, they did not detect an association between visual exposure to greenness and mental health (but they did for blue space). In fact, every 10% increase in ‘blue’ space visibility, one might expect a 1/3 point reduction in K-10 scores.

Wellington, New Zealand

There are a number of research issues remaining, which are the subject of Dr. Pearson’s current research in this area. For example, inconsistencies in findings could be the result of: 1) coarse scale exposure assessment; 2) the lack of including visual exposures seen outside of the home; 3) the lack of inclusion of auditory exposures; and 4) the lack of prospective study design. Dr. Pearson is currently in the process of comparing our geospatial metric of visual exposure to natural areas to the ‘actual’ visual exposure observed among children, using data from automated wearable cameras. Surprisingly, during the initial sorting and coding of the data (n > 750,000 images), she also found that children from the most deprived schools had significantly higher rates of visual exposure to blue space than children from wealthier schools (see Kids'Cam research). ‘Blue’ recreation, for example cycling along the coastline, also appears to be an important activity that produces visual exposure to water bodies, among New Zealand children in Wellington.

This body of work has shown that fine scale exposure measurement, attention to multiple pathways, and prospective measurement of both exposure and outcome are essential to untangling the relationship of exposure to natural areas and health. This research was funded by New Zealand’s Ministry of Health, New Zealand’s Health Research Council, and Michigan State University’s Provost Undergraduate Research Initiative.

Research Study: StAND Detroit Pilot Study

Study Designs and Aims

The purpose of this pilot study is to collect cardio-metabolic health, physical activity and stress data on residents in two neighborhoods in Detroit, to ultimately understand neighborhood factors which promote health in these high vacancy, low income neighborhoods.

Physical activity and stress are major risk factors for chronic disease. Individuals living in socioeconomically deprived inner cities have high rates of cardiovascular disease (CVD), cancers, depression, Type 2 diabetes and obesity, which have stress- and physical activity-related etiologies. Physical activity levels are low among American adults. In Michigan only 53% meet guidelines. Likewise, >8 million Americans suffer from serious psychological distress, with disproportionately high levels among low-income and minority groups. Chronic disease has been partly attributed to stress and inactivity.

To address health disparities, city planners and public health researchers are investigating features of the built environment that may reduce stress and promote healthy lifestyles, including urban green space (e.g., parks). Throughout America’s post-industrial cities, severe population decline has resulted in many abandoned and demolished buildings and huge numbers of unmaintained parks and empty lots. In the worst instances, unmaintained parks and empty lots can become locations for drug dealing and crime. But, green spaces also offer opportunities for health benefits. Our focus on the health impact of neighborhood amenities in low income, predominantly African American neighborhoods increases the potential for high impact, given the disproportionate levels of chronic disease risk in such communities. This study is currently underway.

Left: Everett mounting a bird song recorder.

Right: Rachel Buxton visits the lab to teach us how to use the recorders.


Coming Soon...

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Geography Building
Lab - Room 233A
673 Auditorium Rd., Room 231
East Lansing, MI 48824
(517) 432-7163