U research aims to find health benefits of Twin Cities’ green alleyways

Focus groups began last month to find perceived benefits of the green spaces.

A green alleyway in Minneapolis.

Courtesy of Ella Weber

A green alleyway in Minneapolis.

Gwiwon Jason Nam

A University of Minnesota graduate student is working with a local non-profit organization to explore health impacts of urban green spaces. 

Ella Weber, a student in the University’s Natural Resources Science and Management program, is examining how small-scale green spaces may provide ecological and human health benefits. These spaces, called green alleys, are designed to reverse damage done by accumulated water through increased vegetation and greenery. 

Weber said she believes green alleys may have benefits beyond their original purpose, and is doing research to prove it.

“What I’m coming in to look at is how do people perceive their health benefits in relation to this new greening around their neighborhood,” Weber said.

Increased urbanization has resulted in less space for vegetation and limited opportunities for people to come in contact with nature, according to Weber.

Metro Blooms, a Minneapolis nonprofit, started working with homeowners in the Lake Nokomis neighborhood to install stormwater management practices on private property. The goal was to transform the look of the alleyways and make them more environmentally-friendly. The nonprofit worked with neighbors along alleyways to create pedestrian-friendly community spaces that provide habitat and protect water quality. 

Twenty blooming alleys have been installed in Minneapolis, and one in St. Paul, since the project began in 2014.

Last month, Weber began conducting focus groups to assess the residents’ perceptions of the green alleys. With the focus groups, Weber aims to find the perceived benefits of the alleys and identify opportunities for design improvement. The participants are from the Lake Nokomis neighborhood.

“Her research is really interesting to me, because I know one of the things it’s focusing on is the health impact,” said Laura Scholl, associate director at Metro Blooms. “We often struggle to or forget to make the connection between green space and improving environmental health with improving physical health.”

Scholl said she thinks this research will allow them to make that connection.Ingrid Schneider, an adviser for the project and University professor in the Department of Forest Resources, said the research focuses on small urban green spaces, also called micro-green spaces, and their impact on mental well being. 

Previous work has focused on larger spaces and often those designed for recreation, Schneider said.

“The other important element is the integration of social and ecological factors,” Schneider said. “Blooming Alleys focused on the environmental benefits and this project extends the impacts on the individual and social arenas.”

Weber will work on the research throughout the summer before writing a thesis through the end of next year.