Toby Melville / Reuters

A new study finds that vegetation around schools cuts down on air pollution and boosts memory and attention.

When I lived in L.A., I reported on a school near Long Beach in which nearly a fifth of the students had asthma. One culprit seemed to be the school’s unfortunate geography: About 500 trucks passed by its grounds every hour, and according to a study released at the time, at least 9 percent of childhood-asthma cases in the area were attributable to road traffic. The air near the school, which sometimes smelled rotten or rubbery, contained nearly twice the normal level of elemental carbon, a marker of diesel particles.

Asthma is just one of the health problems linked to air pollution exposure. Sniffing exhaust all day also contributes to everything from stroke to premature death.

Conversely, spending time in nature is correlated with better mental health, attention, and mood in both children and adults. A new study out Monday in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that green spaces can actually boost cognitive outcomes in children—in part by protecting their brains from air pollutants.

For the large study involving 2,623 schoolchildren in Barcelona, researchers first assessed the amount of greenery around the children’s homes, along their commutes to school, and surrounding the schools themselves. They then measured the children’s working memories and attention spans using a series of word and number tests.

(PNAS)

The children who had more vegetation around their schools showed more progress in working memory and attention over the course of a year, a finding that held true even after the authors controlled for socioeconomic status. (The associations with the commute and home-based greenery were not as strong.)

Not only did the plant life soak up much of the elemental carbon around the schools, the authors write, green spaces are also known to reduce city noise and stress while increasing opportunities for exercise.

More than half the world’s population lives in cities, so it’s not exactly practical for every child to attend school in the middle of a forest. Still, the results suggest that green space can be an important factor in designing school environments—and in drafting environmental regulations.

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Transportation

    You Can’t Design Bike-Friendly Cities Without Considering Race and Class

    Bike equity is a powerful tool for reducing inequality. Too often, cycling infrastructure is tailored only to wealthy white cyclists.

  2. Protestors hold a sign that reads "Respect Democracy Our Vote Matters"
    Equity

    The Conservative Backlash Against Progressive Ballot Measures

    In many states, ballot initiatives on expanding Medicaid, limiting gerrymandering, and raising the minimum wage swept to victory in November. Now lawmakers are doing their best to reverse them.

  3. Equity

    The FBI's Forgotten War on Black-Owned Bookstores

    At the height of the Black Power movement, the Bureau focused on the unlikeliest of public enemies: black independent booksellers.

  4. a photo of a woman riding a light rail train in Jerusalem.
    Life

    Can a Light Rail Train Link a Divided City?

    Part cultural tour, part social activism, a project called Dissolving Boundaries uses Jerusalem's public transportation as a stage for examining relations between Israeli and Palestinian residents.

  5. Equity

    Capturing Black Bottom, a Detroit Neighborhood Lost to Urban Renewal

    “Black Bottom Street View,” now exhibiting at the Detroit Public Library, thoughtfully displays old images of the historic African American neighborhood in its final days.