Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Nature’s Antidote to Urban Living

Getting out of the office or house and into nature is seen by many as an antidote to the modern world. Most urban environments don’t allow for a lot of green. We live in concrete jungles. We’re constantly on the move and instead of looking out, people are often looking down (at their mobile phones!). Given this, understanding and publicizing the benefits of interacting with nature is important, as it can do us a world of good.

RWF Cameron from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Landscape, makes an observation that in the past, community leaders “had a greater understanding of the relationship between green space and wellbeing than subsequent generations of planners and designers”. Think Thoreau. Given the vast green spaces reserved for parks and gardens on prime real estate in some of the world’s biggest cities, would planners take the same approach today? I couldn’t imagine London without Hyde Park, Paris without the Jardin des Tuileries or NYC without Central Park.

Public parks and gardens provide a refuge from the hubbub of a city and bring people together. Studies have shown that there is a significant decrease in crime rates and violent behavior in urban areas with surrounding green space. Easy access to parks and gardens also opens the door for improved brain function, with a study of students in Michigan discovering that cognitive performance was greater after walking through a tree-lined arboretum, compared with a busy city street.

There are obvious benefits from getting out and about in nature, such as calories burned and vitamin D gained. At a societal level, adopting gardening as part of a healthy lifestyle strategy is claimed to provide at least a £5 health benefit for every £1 spent. In healthcare environments, gardens and natural spaces provide a hint of normality, with patients, visitors and staff reaping benefits from active experiences (such as horticulture therapy) as well as inactive experiences, such as simply being able to sit (or play) in a natural environment. Even just the act of looking out at a garden through a window has benefits. A study of patients in a Pennsylvania hospital found that patients in a hospital room with a view of nature had better post-operative healing outcomes compared with patients who had a view of a brick wall. I know which one I’d rather be looking at.

In the general population, gardens and nature are important for well-being, and are linked to improved mood, reduced anxiety, social interaction, and increased inspiration and creativity. A Netherlands study that involved people completing a stressful task found that people who gardened afterwards were less stressed, compared with people who read indoors.

What springs to mind for me is nature’s ability to create an emotional response, which can make us withdraw, reflect and contemplate, or draw us out, by stimulating us with exhilaration and delight. As noted by Matthew Wilson, outgoing voluntary Chairman of Greenfingers Charity (which works with children’s hospices to create outdoor spaces), “There’s no shortage of proverbs, sonnets and poetry extolling the virtues of gardens and green space and how they make us feel.”

Image source: Wikimedia.org

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