Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost. Such a therapy has been known to philosophers, writers, and laypeople alike: interacting with nature. Many have suspected that nature can promote improved cognitive functioning and overall well-being, and these effects have recently been documented. Mark G Berman et al, The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature
The concept of environmental psychology has long been understood, but it is only now that scientists are beginning to study the effects that specific environments (urban, for example) are having on the brain. The link between the built environment and health, in particular mental health, is an area of growing importance within psychology, and an understanding of this is fundamental for all those involved in the field of urban design.
Research around the world is demonstrating that there is a direct relationship between both physical and mental health, and access to open space or nature. Poorly designed urban environments (where access to nature is limited) are proven to increase stress levels, and significantly reduce the brain’s capacity for essential functions such as memory retention, decision making, or even – unbelievably – self control. A tired and overstimulated brain can lack the ability to resist even the simplest temptations that may otherwise have been thoughtfully avoided. This may provide some explanation for our reduced resistance to impulse buying when in the city for example, or the seemingly increased temptation to indulge in junk food or chocolate when mentally drained.
Urban and even suburban environments are still very unnatural to humans, and studies show that time spent in these chaotic, heavily populated places requires increased levels of concentration, which in turn leads to higher levels of mental exhaustion and fatigue. The brain has its limits, as one researcher suggests, and we are only beginning to understand how the city can exceed those limitations.
Given that over 50% of the world’s population and close to 90% of the Australian population now dwell in towns and cities, the results of these studies are disconcerting.
Reassuringly, however, research is showing that the provision of quality open space and nature can help mitigate some of the effects the urban environments have on cognitive function. Access to nature can and does have a restorative effect on the mind, and Attention Restoration Theory (ART), suggests that people can concentrate better after time spent in natural environments. You can see where this would be beneficial: schools and colleges, for example, where concentration is required, can be significantly improved with quality outdoor spaces.
Tests have also shown that patients in hospitals have a significantly quicker recovery time when their room overlooks or has direct access to a garden or green space. Children with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can benefit from ‘green time’, and the restorative effects of nature can be an important supplement to standard drug or behavioural treatments in many cases. Access to nature can have positive mental health benefits for the elderly too; sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease for example can benefit greatly from thoughtful outdoor spaces that provide components such as landmark or orientation elements, lighting, safe private seating areas, and plants with soothing colours and scents.
Nature, it seems, is key.
As designers of the built environment, this ongoing research should underpin and guide our work. Just as knowledge of the ill effects of smoking influenced laws and behaviour, and as increasing obesity levels have led to public education campaigns, so too must the effects of the built environment on mental health be forefront in our minds.
Phil Clegg, Senior Landscape Architect