by Donald A. Rakow
Belief in the benefits to humans of spending time in nature has precedents that stretch back thousands of years. In his On the Parts of Animals, Aristotle stated, “For in all natural things there is something marvelous.” And the transcendentalist writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson mused in his essay “Nature” that “the lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.”
Supporting these pronouncements by learned individuals, an impressive array of studies has been undertaken in recent years to both increase our understanding and provide scientific validation of the myriad ways in which spending time in nature contributes to our well-being. Many of these studies have focused on the ways our bodies adjust to time outdoors – reducing salivary cortisol levels, blood pressure, and heart rates and increasing memory recall, ability to concentrate, and overall mood.
There are many theories about why nature has such a positive series of effects on humans. Back in the nineties, Stephen and Rachel Kaplan advanced what they called the Attention Restoration Theory. They postulated that prolonged use of directed or voluntary attention, as demanded by most occupations and academic study, causes us to experience mental fatigue and associated irritability and stress. Spending even a brief period in the natural world promotes a sense of involuntary fascination that allows the brain’s directed attention to rest and recover from the rigors of problem solving.
Later, another researcher, Roger Ulrich, proposed the Stress Reduction Theory, which focuses on how our bodies respond to stressors and the ways in which these can be reversed after we’ve had a nature experience. A distinctly Japanese approach to the Stress-Reduction Theory is called forest bathing or Shinrin-yoku. Practitioners typically walk through an undisturbed forest while using all of their senses to bathe in the beauty of the nature around them. They emerge as more relaxed and focused individuals, ready to resume their hectic lives.
Light exercise alone cannot provide such benefits. When similar-aged groups of individuals have taken short walks through either a woodland or along urban streets, it’s been shown repeatedly that the woodland stroll reduced stress indicators but the city walks did not.
So, while few today would argue that time in nature is not beneficial, less research has been conducted on the types of natural settings that have the greatest impact and how long we have to spend in them to feel a change. Does an Olmstedian meadow have greater effect on us than a formalized parterre? Can ten minutes sitting in an urban mini-park bring relief from the rigors of crowded and noisy streets?
As we continue to remake our urban centers into biophilic cites and our approaches to landscaping move from heavily maintained formal designs toward more naturalistic and sustainable forms, additional research will be needed to examine how such landscapes affect our psychological and physical states. We can envision a time when a well-executed landscape will be appreciated as much for its health benefits as for its aesthetic appeal.
About the Author
Dr. Donald A. Rakow is an associate professor of horticulture at Cornell University and the former Executive Director of Cornell Plantations (now Cornell Botanic Gardens). He is the co-author of Public Garden Management (Wiley & Sons, 2011) and the upcoming books Public Gardens and Community Revitalization and Nature’s Healing Role: Addressing the Mental Health Crisis on American Campuses, both of which will be published by Cornell University Press in 2019. Dr. Rakow also directs the Nature Rx@Cornell program (www.naturerx.cornell.edu), whose goals are to encourage students to spend more time in nature to contribute to their mental and physical well-being. He is also active in a number of research projects, some of which he will share in this presentation at ELA’s 2018 Mid-Atlantic Conference.
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