News Release

Community study reveals unexpected negative correlation between residential greenspace and psychological well-being of people with spinal cord injury

Unexpected findings underscore the need to understand how natural spaces influence the quality of life of people with mobility disabilities

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Kessler Foundation

Lauren Murphy, PhD

image: Dr. Murphy is associate research scientist in the Centers for Spinal Cord Injury Research and Outcomes & Assessment Research at Kessler Foundation. view more 

Credit: Kessler Foundation

East Hanover, NJ. April 11, 2022. A team of researchers studying people with spinal cord injury living in the community discovered an unexpected negative correlation between psychological well-being and residential greenspace. People with spinal cord injury living in neighborhoods with a low amount of open space had fewer depressive symptoms than those living in areas with a moderate amount of open space. These unanticipated findings underscore the need to better understand how community environment factors influence the quality of life of people with physical disabilities. The article, “Greener on the other side? An analysis of the association between residential greenspace and psychological well-being among people living with spinal cord injury,” (doi: 10.1038/s41393-021-00736-z) was published online by Spinal Cord on January 13, 2022. This is the first known study of its kind in people with mobility disabilities.

The authors are Lauren Murphy, PhD, and Amanda L. Botticello, PhD, MPH, of Kessler Foundation, Claire Kalpakjian, PhD, of the University of Michigan, Susan Charlifue, PhD, of Craig Hospital, Allen W. Heinemann, PhD, of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Mary Slavin, of Boston University, Tanya Rohrbach, MS, of Raritan Valley Community College, and David S. Tulsky, PhD, University of Delaware.

The study represents an extension of the team’s line of research aimed at identifying and reducing barriers to community living for people with disabilities. Survey respondents were 313 individuals with spinal cord injury from the Spinal Cord Injury-Quality of Life (SCI-QOL) Calibration study, representing 20 states, 61 counties, and 351 census tracts. Using Geographic Information Systems data from the US Geological Survey, researchers measured 5-mile and 0.5-mile zones around each participant’s residential address to define their community and neighborhood, respectively.

The survey focused on two domains of psychological well-being – positive affect and depressive symptoms. Based on prior research of factors related to quality of life in the general population, researchers anticipated higher levels of psychological well-being in participants living in communities and neighborhoods with higher amounts of open spaces.  

“While we did find an association between amount of greenspace and psychological well-being, it was not in the direction we expected,” explained lead author Lauren Murphy, PhD, associate research scientist in the Centers for Spinal Cord Injury Research and Outcomes & Assessment Research. “Respondents living in areas with moderate levels of greenspace were less likely to report positive affect and more likely to report depressive symptoms than people living in areas of low greenspace. This contrasts with what we know about the benefits of community open spaces in the general population.”  

The findings have implications for urban planning and public policy for people with disabilities, according to senior author and the study’s Principal Investigator, Amanda Botticello, PhD, MPH, assistant director of the Centers for Spinal Cord Injury Research and Outcomes & Assessment Research. “The negative influence of greenspace in this population raises many questions: “Are open spaces less accessible or less safe for people with disabilities? Is transportation a barrier?”

“We also need to look at the positive associations,” she added, including, “Why is low greenspace associated with psychological well-being? Do such communities contain other features that benefit the well-being of people with mobility disabilities?”

“Clearly, where people with disabilities reside influences many aspects of their quality of life, and as this study shows, people with spinal cord injury may experience a unique relationship with the physical environment and environmental barriers,” Dr. Botticello concluded. “Through further research, we will seek optimal ways to inform public policies that are inclusive of all members of our communities.”

Funding sources: Craig H. Neilsen Foundation (639798, 290518)

About Kessler Foundation: Kessler Foundation, a major nonprofit organization in the field of disability, is a global leader in rehabilitation research that seeks to improve cognition, mobility, and long-term outcomes, including employment, for people with neurological disabilities caused by diseases and injuries of the brain and spinal cord. Kessler Foundation leads the nation in funding innovative programs that expand opportunities for employment for people with disabilities. For more information, visit 

For more information, or to interview an expert, contact Carolann Murphy,


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