The benefits of getting your daily intake of nature, and the consequences of not
A meander in the Royal Botanical Gardens, Melbourne or a day at the office- tough choice. Left: RBG by CumulusHumilis via Flickr (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0). Right: New Office by Phil Whitehouse via Flickr (CC-BY 2.0)
Where would you rather be? It’s almost a rhetorical question. The vast majority of people prefer natural areas over white-walled offices. But why?
People’s preferences for nature have been intuitively felt for centuries. Parks were included in the design of cities in the nineteenth century for health benefits and to reduce crime and social unrest, as well as for recreation. Melbourne’s extensive parklands in and around the city- including Royal Park and Carlton Gardens- are examples of such thinking. The city officials had no scientific evidence for any health benefits, but they were right.
Contact with nature has a ludicrous amount of positive effects on human mental and physical wellbeing. A seminal study from 1984 found that patients recovering in hospital from gall bladder surgery with a view of trees recovered more quickly and used less painkillers than those facing a brick wall. University students with a dorm room looking onto a more natural scene were better at paying attention in a test than students with a view of a human-built scene. People with access to nature in their workplace reported lower levels of job stress and higher job satisfaction than those without.
The first explanations offered for these very real benefits were that humans were conditioned by culture to prefer green areas. In Britain during the Victorian era a country house was a must for any upper-class gent or lady to escape the diseased air of industrialised cities. Country life has been idolised in Australian art as a spiritually fulfilling existence surrounded by a tamed but natural landscape- ideas still perpetuated in magazines like Country Life and Country Style.
The savannah hypothesis is similar, but instead of humans being culturally conditioned to prefer natural scenes it argues that the origins lie in our evolution. Humans evolved in the savannahs of Africa where the sparse tree cover, lots of grass and water sources were good habitat for survival. This might explain why humans the world over prefer art and parks with these elements.
Human preference for nature might come from evolving in a savannah environment in Africa, or cultural conditioning to crave country landscapes. Left-right: Waterhole in Africa by Harvey Barrison via Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0), Central Park, NYC by Doug Kerr via Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0), ‘Still glides the stream, and shall forever glide’ by Arthur Streeton, 1890 via Wikimedia (public domain)
Another recent theory describes natural areas as having restorative effects on cognitive functioning. Urban areas have lots of exciting stimuli that attract and require direct attention (like traffic lights and car horns). Without rest periods, a person’s ability to direct their attention and concentrate decreases. Natural areas have less of these exciting stimuli and more things that capture voluntary and indirect attention- like passing clouds or the rustling of leaves. Therefore, spending time in nature restores a person’s ability to concentrate.
So the reason almost everyone would prefer to be walking around the Royal Botanical Gardens instead of sitting in an office might come down to cultural or evolutionary preferences for nature, or its restorative effects.
City living sucks
The flipside is that the absence of nature has negative consequences. In all of the studies mentioned above, treatments without nature had to worse outcomes. This is worrying because the urban areas that most people in the world now live are seriously lacking in the vegetation department.
It also means cities are missing out on ecosystem services that natural areas provide. For example, trees to produce oxygen and clean the air, and vegetation along river banks to purify water. Lots of issues can be traced back to missing vegetation.
Cities are up to around 5°C warmer during the day and 8°C warmer at night than surrounding areas. This urban heat island effect is caused by the prevalence of dark impervious surfaces such as concrete and asphalt which absorb and store heat more than vegetation and soil. The Melbourne City Council estimates that the cost of the urban heat island to the economy in Melbourne is $294 million a year, mostly due to increased heat-related deaths.
High levels of impervious surfaces also cause high stormwater runoff, which degrades rivers with pollutants and is a flood risk. Air pollution is another huge issue in cities.
Bringing nature back
There is a very simple solution to all of these urban ills- bring back nature to the city.
Despite ongoing pressure from developers and governments to build more roads over urban parkland, this is slowly happening.
The City of Melbourne Council is aiming to increase canopy cover from 22 per cent to 40 per cent by 2040 by planting 3000 trees a year. Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in NYC is exactly what it sounds like- a working 557m2 organic farm on top of a building. All new buildings in Copenhagen with a roof pitch of under 30° have to have a green roof. Urban community gardens are trending around the world, including 3000acres in Melbourne which connects unused land with people who want to grow stuff.
Street trees, community gardens and green roofs are bringing a bit of nature- and all the wonderful things associated with it- back to cities. Left-right: Autumn colours in the street trees on Swanston Street, Melbourne by Alpha via Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0), Community gardener on the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in NYC by Matthew Kebbekus via Flickr (CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0), A prairie green roof twelve stories up in Cincinnati, USA by David B. Gleason via Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0).
I hope this prompts you to introduce a little bit of nature back into your life- maybe a cheery pot plant on your desk or a daily walk in the park. The evidence says it should help you concentrate better, which is highly relevant with the end of semester crunch time well and truly upon us.
Personally, I go a bit nuts without regular study breaks looking or being in some sort of nature.
When was the last time you walked around the Systems Gardens barefoot?