Our surroundings have the power to shape our emotions, health, and well-being. We can feel this in our bodies – our tensions heighten while driving in city traffic, and relax while walking in a park – and research supports it, too. The lights, sounds, and colors of the environment in which we live and work have a profound impact on our health. In an increasingly urban world, many people now experience physical and emotional health issues caused by environmental stress and fatigue. To combat these negative effects, step outside, because spending time in natural environments is really good for our health .
Our positive relationship with nature stems from the innate fondness humans have for the natural environment – something called biophilia. We see nature as having intrinsic value, and we receive pleasure from it without any economic gain. What do I mean by “nature,” which can refer to so many things? In this definition, it includes parks, open fields, backyards, streetscapes, community gardens, and all other open space in the urban and rural environment. The enduring value we place on nature can be seen in the centuries-old paintings and poems we preserve, the natural settings we protect, and even the houseplants we tenderly care for .
The restorative capabilities of nature are well documented. Research shows that simply having a view of nature can improve a student’s test scores , reduce a prison inmate’s aggressive behavior , or speed up a hospital patient’s healing . It seems unbelievable that a pleasant view could do all of this. But those who practice mediation, deep breathing, or exercise know the power our mind-body connection has in reducing stress and illness. Today, we are beginning to better understand the benefits we receive from nature. In fact, it has become increasingly common for a doctor to suggest a patient with ADHD or depression to spend time outdoors instead of prescribing medicine .
In her book, “Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being,” health and wellness expert Esther Sternberg points to a plethora of scientific research revealing how the built environment creates stress and makes us sick, and how thoughtful design can help. Many healthcare facilities have adopted a patient-centered focus, incorporating facilities with open, airy spaces, abundant light, and views or access to the outdoors. The working relationship between the senses, the emotions, and the immune system are complicated, however it appears that a soothing place can trigger the brain’s healing process .
Nature provides us with a space for reflection and meditation. Natural environments encourage restoration through “soft fascination,” a term that refers to elements that capture our attention and allow for other forms of thinking, including reflection. Fascinating elements of nature include bird songs, clouds moving across the sky, or the rustling of leaves in a light breeze. Soft fascination allows the mind to wander, and encourages the exploration of our thoughts. In contrast, hard fascination, such as watching TV, demands full attention .
Spending time in a natural environment creates an opportunity to reflect on prior experiences, make decisions, and develop ideas. Ultimately, this can help change our perception of stress, improving our mental health . On this topic, Rebecca Solnit, writer and activist, wrote:
“One of the functions of landscape is to correspond to, nurture, and provoke exploration of the landscape of the imagination. Space to walk is also space to think, and I think that’s one thing landscapes give us: places to think longer, more uninterrupted thoughts or thoughts to a rhythm other than the staccato of navigating the city” .
As the quote suggests, landscape is much more than a place that we move through. It can trigger or reduce stress, induce anxiety, or instill peace. As cities expand and develop, concrete landscapes are taking over and reducing the amount of ever-more important green space. By incorporating elements of light and nature into our cities, we can support health and reduce stress .
The belief that nature is a tonic for the stressors of life is not necessarily new, however it does often seem forgotten. Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park in New York City, believed that green spaces should be in the heart of every city to provide city dwellers with an escape. Central Park, which is iconic across the globe, was designed as a sanctuary of peace and wilderness that contained rock outcroppings, open fields, and meandering paths to bring city-dwellers to a place of tranquility within the city.
While not all communities have such huge parcels of land to work with, the conversion of abandoned spaces into green spaces is becoming more common. In Los Angeles, a non-profit group called From Lot to Spot has transformed over 10 vacant lots into accessible green space. These green sanctuaries allow users a means to escape the hustle and bustle of city life, and provide residents with a shared community identity .
Small efforts like these are already beginning to lead to changes in the way we design. Thoughtfully designing our cities so that nature is integrated throughout the developed landscape has come to feel like a public health issue worthy of wider recognition. Incorporating nature as an essential element in the design of our urban environments can create a world that provides restoration for everyone, even in the city.
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 Sternberg, E. M. (2009). Healing spaces: The science of place and well-being. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
 Solnit, R. (2007). Storming the gates of paradise: Landscapes for politics. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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Stephanie Marino is a landscape architect who works in Maryland.