by Layla McCay, UD/MH Director
Cherry blossom season is upon us in Japan. The national news is filled with cherry blossom reports: it feels like everybody is invested in the specific day that the flowers will bloom in their town. There is good reason for this interest, and not just the national appreciation of beauty, flowers and the ephemeral nature of life. Cherry blossom behavior is part of Japan’s national psyche. In a unique moment of nationwide celebration, the country’s usual work-focused culture presses pause, and a different priority is embraced: cherry blossoms viewing, known as hanami. People walk amongst cherry blossoms, admire them, photograph them… Admiring cherry blossoms is part of the pulse of Japan.
As the flowers fleetingly blossom, so too does another fleeting pleasure: leisurely outdoor social interaction. Everyone dashes to their nearest cherry blossom location to enjoy raucous, convivial, drunken hanami parties, crowded on blue tarpaulin sheets spread under the trees. Offices, universities, friends, and just about anyone else organises hanami parties, characterised by picnicking (with copious alcohol usually involved). Office workers are even sent to the park early in the morning to secure a good spot.
Hanami picnics in Yoyogi Park. Photo by Stardog Champion. Used Under Creative Commons license.
But as the blossoms start to fade, so too does this particular form of social interaction. At the end of cherry blossom season, Japanese people pack up their picnic blankets and store them til next spring. This seems a missed opportunity: many people live in very small homes, particularly those in large cities like Tokyo, which inhibits their inviting others to their homes for socialising. Picnics should be an ideal solution. And yet they are not. Part of the reason may be lack of venue. Tokyo has only 5.4 m2 of green space per person; this compares to 11.8m2 in Paris, 26.9m2 in London and 29.1 m2 in New York. While picnicking takes over many public spaces during hanami season, for the rest of the time this is not appropriate, and many parks are designed to be admired, not as appropriate social dining spots for adults. But finding the right venue is not the only hurdle. Picnics do not tend to be part of Japanese culture. According to many Japanese people, picnicking outside at any non-hanami time of the year is generally considered 'bizarre', 'childish', and even 'suspicious'.
Hiroshi Ota, an architect, and Kaori Ito, an urban designer, helped establish the Tokyo Picnic Club in 2002. Its mission: to tempt Tokyoites to picnic outside of hanami season, socialising in natural settings year-round. They claim: ‘to picnic is the urban culture to utilize the public spaces, to make up for the deficiencies of our city life.’ The appreciation of parks is a cultural norm, but the idea of picnics is unusual. Yet they offer many benefits, not least the opportunity to promote good mental health in the city. Picnicking offers exposure to natural green spaces, encourages physical activity (at least walking to the picnic spot), and facilitates pro-social interaction, which are all urban factors associated with good mental health.
TRY A PICNIC TALK / Illustration: Kotori NOGUCHI, Design: Wataru Noritake
The connections between picnics in the park and good mental health tends to be underappreciated. “Japanese people don’t feel the direct connection between spending time in nature and health,” Ota explains. “However, if parks are used for community activities, that can lead to improved mental health.”
The Tokyo Picnic Club helps people make that all-important but unappreciated connection between urban design and mental health by linking picnics to more commonly accepted health promotion ideas. “In Japan, people tend to think about food when it comes to health. Since the idea of the picnic is based on food, this helps with the idea that going to the park for a picnic can help enhance health.” Ito adds that in Japan, expressing creativity is another important facet of mental health, and this can be achieved by preparing elaborate picnics. “When Japanese people enjoy creativity, they tend to feel happy. Therefore, we believe that writing a poem, making food, and wearing creative costumes during the picnic may also make people feel happy.”
There are further benefits to socialising in the park, Ito proposes: “If you go to a shopping centre, you will notice the lack of diversity. However, parks are open for anyone. You can see all the generations, including rich, poor, elderly and young people.”
Tokyo Picnic Club picnicking outside in Konan-ryokusei Park, Tokyo. Photo and copyright: Hajime Ishikawa
But their enthusiasm for picnics is not shared by everyone. The Tokyo Picnic Club described setting up picnics in various patches of green space around Tokyo – and measuring how long it took before their party caught the attention of the police and were reprimanded for their subversive attitude to picnicking outside the social boundaries of hanami season. It rarely takes long before they are questioned - and often asked to move on.
“We just want the places to have our picnic. We need neither benches nor waterworks. We simply want a spacious lawn. If Green Fields such as beautiful parks are open to us, the picnic becomes the art of encounter in our urban lifestyles. If Brown Fields such as ex-industrial sites or abandoned harbors are open to our picnic, we can develop meals, tools, manners and conversations to fit in the new atmosphere of the modern cityscape.”
The Tokyo Picnic Club hopes that by raising awareness, the value of year-round picnicking will be better understood and appreciated in Japan. Their efforts have included portable lawns, and Grass on Vacation, an art show where they remove aeroplane-shaped pieces of turf from locations where people do not sit on the grass, and take them on ‘vacation’ to other locations where the grass can 'enjoy' its intended use: people are encouraged to sit, lie, socialise, eat and generally enjoy the experience of nature in the city.
Grass On Vacation ANGYANG (2005)
Design: Hiroshi OTA + Kaori ITO + Toru KASHIHARA + Wataru KASHIHARA, Illustration: Kenji KITAMURA
The Tokyo Picnic Club smilingly insist that the "Right to Picnic" should be a basic human right for urban dwellers. Given the normality of picnicking in other cities all over the world, in Tokyo, this is a surprisingly subversive demand.
In time, the Picnic Club hope for proper observation of one of the 15 rules of Tokyo Picnic Club: every day is a picnic day. By encouraging people’s access to green space and positive, natural social interaction, this is also an apt mantra for mental health promotion in the city.
Illustration: Kotori NOGUCHI
About the Author
By Eva Adler, Geospatial Information Specialist at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Washington DC.
Trees present an excellent opportunity for planners to help enhance urban mental health and wellbeing. But choosing the wrong trees can be more detrimental to urban communities than having none at all. To make the most of urban green spaces, both tree characteristics and spatial thinking need be considered early on in the planning process. In this article, we will explore common challenges in choosing trees in urban design and how five tools can better support planning and build more vibrant, healthy urban communities.
The ‘wrong trees’ can do more harm than good
These tools are important because despite the best of intentions, implementation problems often occur at the neighborhood scale when the ‘wrong trees’, or trees unsuitable for a place’s specific urban variables, are brought into the built environment. For example, city planners plant beautiful Ginko bilboa trees along local roads to contribute to the city’s beautification project. The intention is to increase shade, safety, health and happiness across the local community - all laudable aims. However, over time the trees grow too large for the city’s infrastructure and budget. The branches begin to destroy electrical lines, crack underground water pipes, fall onto cars during winter storms, and litter pounds of smelly fruit every spring. The city becomes frustrated and cut down the trees... only to replace them with smaller, younger Ginko trees. So where did they go wrong?
How to choose the ‘right tree’ for mental health, wellbeing… and for tax dollars
In the US, the Arbor Day Foundation advocates The Right Tree in the Right Place framework, emphasizing that proper planning is vital to achieve the outcome of healthy urban green spaces. They describe trees that will “cool your home in summer and tame the winter winds… grow well in the soil and moisture of your neighborhood… be properly placed to avoid collisions with powerlines and buildings.” Furthermore, thousands of city tax dollars can be prevented in sidewalk and electrical repairs if planners match trees to the urban locations in which they will be planted.
Tree characteristics to consider for sustainable urban design:
Organizations like Casey Trees strive to prevent planning issues associated with tree planting and restore the urban forest of the Washington DC through education and outreach, policy advocacy, and private and public partnerships. Source: Casey Trees website
Tool 1: Tree Finder Wizard (for the US)
But how to identify the right tree for a particular location? For instance, a local coffee shop in New York City wants to plant a few trees above the front patio to give customers shade. But there are electrical lines 50 feet above ground, there’s limited planting space for roots, partial shade, and the northeast winters are harsh. So what should they do?
One helpful tool they can use is the Tree Finder Wizard tool, developed by the American Arbor Day Foundation. This tool identifies the right tree species for any community in the US based on the variables of zip-code, soil, height, growth rate, spread, and aesthetics desired (fruit, evergreen, deciduous, etc.) | website
Source: Arbor Day Foundation, website
Tool 2: National Tree Benefit Calculator (for the US)
The Right Tree Right Place framework is an important first step towards using trees to help achieve healthier communities and more impactful outcomes. However, getting the information and facts to the right people is another challenge. Evidence of economic improvement can form a persuasive argument that helps turn ideas into action. Whether it’s city officials, policy makers, neighborhood HOAs, or school principals who need to be persuaded, the free National Tree Benefit Calculator is an effective tool to communicate specific economic benefits of urban trees and diversity of tree populations. While it does not yet consider health benefits, it calculates the monetary benefit of trees based on tree species, age, and size based on potential improvements in stormwater, property value, energy usage, and air quality | website
Source: Arbor Day Foundation, website
Tool 3: Google’s SketchUp
However, city planning doesn’t only mean city effort. Local non-profits, businesses, and homeowners can too create designs for public spaces, backyards, and community gardens using the right tree right place framework and free 3D spatial design tools.
SketchUp is Google's free design software. It incorporates a few landscape templates to help get a project started. In SketchUp, one can upload a photo and create objects from scratch easily on a laptop to help plan tree design within a given landscape. | website
Tool 4: Garden Visualizer
The Marshalls Garden Visualizer lets a beginner user design a garden or small public space with stunning 3D quality. Photos of community structures and buildings can also be uploaded and displayed in the backdrop | website
Tool 5: Mappler K2
Predicting future trends and integrating community input early on into the design process are challenges that city and regional planners encounter regularly. Where do community members want more trees? In what areas do we need more trees to improve safety, mental health, and healing? How can a city streamline input and provide effective solutions? Mappler is a free crowdsource mapping tool and a mobile data collector app to easily conduct assessments and identify community needs across a city scale. It is a tried and true tool to collect diverse inputs on a large scale to help identify community issues, needs, and successes. | website | community asset mapping
Asset Mapping using Mappler, website |
A prime example of the use of Mappler was in New Jersey where local residents entered the location of road potholes. Local officials then used this input to prioritize areas of operation and improve road conditions. When each road was fixed, they were able to input a comment to notify the public that the issue they identified had been fixed.
Source: Mappler Mobile, website
This same process can be used for identifying other community needs, for instance the tracking and maintaining of urban forests as demonstrated by Casey Trees in Washington DC (online map).
These tools can contribute to smarter urban planning that will achieve the wide range of positive impacts - and help avoid the unintended pitfalls - of planting trees to improve community life.
Do you have a great tool to suggest? Please add a link and description in the comments section.
About the Author
by Tracy A Marciano
Urban Planning as a means to organize people, places, concepts and practices has an interesting history. As civilization progressed, urban planning followed a parallel trajectory, reacting to practices that outlived their usefulness. With each era, large scale redesign was at the forefront of change with small pockets of improvement on the periphery.
Contemporary discourse about urban health is primarily focused on green spaces and walkability. While both are important in the urban fabric, they are not absolute measures of ideal public health and their results are hard to quantify against the variations in symptoms and treatments for mental disorders. Introducing concepts from other fields and recalibrating them into plausible urban design initiatives is a potentially interesting approach to improve mental health in cities. In particular, as urban areas gain momentum, exploring concepts from eastern medicine such as acupuncture, aromatherapy (or horticulture therapy), directional alignment with the sun and the moon, nocturnal gardens, botanical soundscapes and energy balancing might be applied to exert a positive impact on mental health in modern cities.
Map developed by Sir Ebenezer Howard, urban planner, 1850 - 1928. This shows his vision for improving the conditions of the poor through combining the best aspects of town and country and allocating space carefully. Read more here.
As populations migrate towards urban centers at an accelerated rate, advancing improved health strategies - rather than utopia - is often being achieved through incremental improvements.
A recent movement is New Urbanism, or tactile urbanism, which seeks to align with sustainability, preservation of existing buildings and walkability. However, as with past attempts at planning perfect cities, such as The Garden City movement, individual experience, public mental health and most importantly, the causation and impact of mental health problems have been largely excluded from the dialog.
Jamie Lerner, who served three terms as the mayor of Curitiba, Brazil uses urban acupuncture as the philosophy behind his successful initiatives. Urban acupuncture is the mature cousin to tactical urbanism, which has suffered a bit of backlash lately as a trendy, high-concept practice of questionable long-term impact. Lerner writes in his book “Industrious mediocrity is gaining ground, along with merchants of complexity: the bean-counters and the inconclusive, never-ending researchers. But sometimes, just one stroke of creativity is acupuncture powerful enough to make progress.”
In 2007 University of Minnesota published a paper about their collaboration with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. This paper highlighted key findings about how to increase accessibility to nature to address mental health problems. Their research also found that social networks are important and that mental health is connected to fundamental public health issues but did not offer developed solutions with measurable results.
In most cities, areas that create tension and erratic energy and areas that can exacerbate anxiety, depression and isolation are evident. If cities are viewed as a biological system and receptive to holistic wellness plans, the philosophy of urban acupuncture may be an ideal platform to improve heath. For example, if obstructed walkways and clogged streets create tension and anxiety, a small area, such as an acupressure point along a vertical meridian line, could be addressed rather than attempting a complete urban redesign.
Green space is prevalent in urban planning. However, an actual plan for the green space is often missing. Green space can mean a small strip of grass, or a few trees added as an afterthought. Applying other eastern principles, such as aromatherapy would be a progressive addition to the design phase. For example, if there is a lack of people using a public space where there is ample seating, adding a vertical garden with aromatic herbs may draw people to the area. Aromatherapy, or a fragrance garden, on a large scale could enhance individual experiences while reducing stress and anxiety. It also gives purpose to a vertical garden aside from aesthetics.
Incorporating vespertine gardens (night blooming) would help understand that urban areas have enormous potential after sunset; and would also align with solar and lunar lighting during the design phase. Nocturnal plants are more fragrant and assist visually impaired individuals when combined with other sensory plantings. Using balance between day/night, light/dark can create enough stability to reduce tension and anxiety.
Urban acupuncture is an intriguing starting point to reconsider conventional urban planning and design. It highlights that we are at a critical moment in time when all stakeholders can think about long term plans and how those plans will have a positive impact on mental and public health in urban centers.
Caixa Forum Museum employing concepts of urban acupuncture and aromatherapy to urban design. More details.
About the author
Clair Wholean, an architect with DLR Group| Sorg in Washington DC, on biophilia, the urban environment, and mental health.
Biophila, our innate love of nature, is an obvious way to enhance our cities into environments promoting mental health. The word was first coined by the social psychologist Eric Fromm to describe the positive feelings we obtain from interaction with natural systems and species. This describes everything from the joy we experience in seeing a family of ducklings swimming in a pond, to the beauty of an old growth forest, and the harmonious sound of crickets on a summer night.
Biophila was originally explored as a niche area of psychology and neuroscience research. Books such as The Biophila Hypothesis, The Last Child in the Woods, and Healing Spaces have done much to spread the concept of biophilia to other fields, and it is now beginning to gain traction in design circles, influencing architecture, interior design and urbanism.
When one thinks of nature and cities, the first thought that comes to mind is likely a tree-lined street with a beautiful canopy. Trees are one of the best ways to start with enhancing the natural environment in a city because of their myriad of benefits, from creating summer shade havens to ecosystems for birds that calm us with their song. Much work is already being done to green our cities; planting more trees is a top priority for stormwater management, reducing the heat island effect, and the health benefits they bring for urban dwellers. Organizations such as the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition and Million Trees NYC are non-profits that have grown recently, dedicated to planting and maintaining our urban forests. Washington DC, for instance, has proudly made tree planting and protection a priority by having an Urban Forestry Administration as part of the District's Department of Transportation.
But beyond greening our urban landscape, biophilia has a wider focus: to bring more of the natural world in contact with our day to day lives. The Biophilic Cities Project and Partnership for Sustainable Communities are two non-profits working to bring biophila to urban environments. Terrapin Bright Green, a sustainable research & development consultant based in New York, has published several recent white papers on the topic of special interest to the built environment. The 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design and the Economics of Biophilia make the case for incorporating natural systems into our built environment for both financial reasons and to support our wellbeing. Design strategies such as incorporating natural patterns and analogues, creating a visual connection with nature, stochastic sensory stimuli, dynamic lighting, complexity, and the concepts of spatial prospect and refuge explain that creating a biophilic environment is the next step beyond planting trees.
Research on the physiological effects of natural environments has revealed tangible benefits in stress reduction, concentration, memory, creativity, comfort, healing, and emotion and mood regulation. A few empirical results specific to mental health include:
This is the first in a series of posts where I will explore specific examples of biophilia in urban environments and its relation to mental health, which can be seen as a reflection of our strength and fragility as a species. As humans, we are highly sensitive to our environment. Surrounding ourselves with nature reaffirms that we live in a connected world.
Dora Jihyun Yi is a clinical psychologist from South Korea, currently undertaking a Masters degree in global health at Georgetown University. As a UD/MH research associate she has been starting to think about how to leverage links between green building and mental health.
Have you ever heard of green building? According to the US Green Building Council, green building is defined as ‘a holistic concept that starts with the understanding that the built environment can have profound effects, both positive and negative, on the natural environment, as well as the people who inhabit buildings every day’ and ‘an effort to amplify the positive and mitigate the negative of these effects throughout the entire life cycle of a building’ (Kriss, J., 2014). Green building, which is also called ‘sustainable building,’ is ‘the practice of creating and using healthier and more resource-efficient models of construction, renovation, operation, maintenance and demolition’ (US EPA: Green Building, 2014). Its aims are to reduce the adverse effects of the built environment which impacts on both human and the nature by maximizing the efficiency of energy, water and other resources, minimizing waste and environmental pollution, and improving health and productivity (US EPA: Green Building, 2014).
The USGBC created Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, a rating system to assess how the built environment meets the requirements of green building (Concrete Thinking, 2015). Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. is the first Major League Baseball stadium with LEED certification (USGBC, 2014). It uses energy-efficient field lighting, which anticipates savings of $440,000 over 25 years (USGBC, 2014). The ballpark does not only encourage visitors to use public transportation but also provides parking areas and valet services for bicycles, promoting environmentally friendly transportation without using fossil fuel (USGBC, 2014). The USGB reported that the stadium could save over 4 million gallons of water a year thanks to low-flow faucets and dual-flush toilets as well as air-cooled chillers instead of water-cooled chillers (USGBC, 2014).
But how about the impact on human health? A literature review article identified that green buildings can benefit both physical and mental health (Allen et al., 2015). For instance, green buildings designed to improve indoor air quality can reduce the incidence of workers’ asthma and allergies, which in turn, can enhance their productivity (Allen et al., 2015). Compared to a conventional hospital, a LEED-certified green hospital indicated a reduced mortality rate of patients, higher satisfaction of employees, and improved quality of care indicating a lower rate of blood stream infections (Allen et al., 2015). According to the Indian Green Building Council, green hospitals designed to maximize daylight and optimize the artificial light can reduce seasonal affective disorder, sometimes referred to as 'winter depression' (Indian Green Building Council, 2015). They found that green hospitals with more gardens and landscape are associated with positive feelings such as pleasantness and calmness for both patients and employees (Indian Green Building Council, 2015). In particular, environmental noise can lead to cognitive dysfunction as well as psychological distress for both adults and children (Stansfeld & Matheson, 2003; Weitzman et al., 2013). Green space can provide buffer to block or reduce environmental noise.
Living in an environment that incorporates green space is certainly better for our mental health. However, it can be a challenge to create large open spaces or green spaces in highly populated and small land areas such as New York City in the US, Tokyo in Japan, or Seoul in South Korea. Using innovative solutions like green roofs or rooftop gardens are one way not only to reduce environmental noises but also to make it easier to access the natural environment. The initial cost of installing a green roof may be more costly than a conventional roof, but tangible and intangible benefits of a green roof can soon offset the expenses (US EPA: Green Roofs, 2013). These roofs can reduce energy use of cooling and heating; reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emission; slow storm-water runoff; and improve the quality of life and human health (US EPA: Green Roofs, 2013).
Green building is a fascinating and rapidly emerging concept, but its relationship with mental health, especially for specific mental illnesses, is not well documented yet. Interdisciplinary studies to find out the impacts of green buildings on mental health and multi-sectoral interventions to make our environment greener and healthier are needed for the better future.
Questions for further thought
If you have research or ideas about these questions or any others pertaining to the question of green building and mental health, please send us an op-ed to be considered for publication in Sanity and Urbanity.
1. Allen, J.G., MacNaughton, P., Laurent, J.G.C., Flanigan, S.S., Eitland, E.S. & Spengler, J.D. (2015). Green buildings and health. Current Environmental Health Reports, 2(3), 250-258.
2. Concrete Thinking. (2015). Benefits > LEED. Retrieved from http://www.concretethinker.com/solutions/LEED-Certification.aspx
3. Indian Green Building Council. Green Hospitals. (2014). Technical Bulletin. Retrieved from https://igbc.in/igbc/html_pdfs/technical/Green%20Hospitals.pdf
4. Kriss, J. (2014). What is green building? The US Green Building Council (USGBC). Retrieved from http://www.usgbc.org/articles/what-green-building
5. Stansfeld, S.A. & Matheson, M.P. (2003). Noise pollution: non-auditory effects on health. British Medical Bulletin, 68, 243-257.
6. The US Green Building Council (USGBC). (2014). Nationals Stadium. Retrieved from http://www.usgbc.org/projects/nationals-stadium
7. US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (2013). Green Roofs. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/heatisld/mitigation/greenroofs.htm
8. US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (2014). Green Building. Retrieved from http://archive.epa.gov/greenbuilding/web/html/
9. Weitzman, M., Baten, A., Rosenthal, D.G., Hoshino, R., Tohn, E. & Jacobs, D.E. (2013). Housing and child health. Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care, 43(8), 187-224.
Urban Realities Laboratory, University of Waterloo, Canada
There’s no shortage of research suggesting that cities can be bad for our mental health. The incidence of depression and psychosis is higher in cities, and though the reasons for this are not yet completely worked out, some simple explanations such as exposure to toxins and pollutants that might be found in greater abundance in cities have been more or less ruled out—most of the clues point to more psychological explanations for the malaise that some experience in dense urban environments. Some studies have suggested that the stresses that arise in dense settings may be to blame for producing psychopathologies in vulnerable individuals, and some have pointed to the problems of loneliness and isolation that can arise in cities. City dwellers have to contend with the general problem of living among thousands of strangers, and considered across the broad sweep of human history, this is a recent turn of events and one for which we are not necessarily neurologically equipped. Early humans, like the more social of our primate cousins, would have lived in small groups where everyone knew everyone and could see and understand what was happening in their small social circle most of the time.
Urban design can exert a strong influence on our patterns of behaviour and our stress levels. Both the anonymity of life in a high-rise and the isolation of automobile-centric suburban life can exact a heavy toll on urban residents. Astonishingly, a recent survey showed that one-third of Americans have never interacted with the people who live next-door to them.
But it isn’t just the maladaptive social pressures exerted on us by city environments that cause undue stress and challenges to our well-being. What some might think of as the simple aesthetic of an urban environment—the look and feel of a neighbourhood—also produces a measurable effect on our mental health. One simple and now well-studied example has to do with natural environments. We no longer think of a city’s green-space as an aesthetic bauble or as the “dessert” of city planning that should be parachuted into place as an afterthought. In the past, all too often, public places with natural landscapes were squeezed into a setting wherever they could be afforded and made to work. Now, entire urban landscapes are being dramatically transformed by the careful planning of park areas. For examples of this, one need only look at the Millennium Park Project in Chicago or the spectacular Highline in New York City. Along with the overwhelmingly positive public response to such spaces, there is plenty of hard-nosed science suggesting that exposure to scenes of nature, even very modest ones, can have a dramatic impact on public health. In one recent study, a link was made between the density of urban trees on boulevards and a host of public health variables including rates of heart disease and diabetes.
Beyond the well-documented restorative effects of green-spaces, we showed that many aspects of the urban surround can exert a strong effect on our moods, our levels of arousal, and our attraction to particular areas of the city. For example, we showed that long, unbroken, featureless facades cause passersby to become unhappy, bored, and perhaps even a little angry. In our studies of urban psychogeography in Mumbai, we discovered that in a hyper-dense city, respite from the crowding and noise of city streets in an empty place (like a quiet churchyard) can produce as much psychological restoration as a refreshing oasis of green might do in a less dense environment. We’ve also been able to show that although different types of green-spaces might have entirely different contexts and meanings (cemeteries, community gardens, traditional parks) all can produce a profound health-giving restorative response. Although we don’t yet know how these fleeting changes in thoughts and feelings that correlate with our movements through a city might translate into long-term health measures, it would be surprising if there weren’t such connections, and the current work in our laboratory is devoted to finding them.
There has never been a more pressing time for us to understand the psychological impact of urban development on the human brain.
More than half of the world’s population now live in large cities, and the construction of hyper-dense cores is taxing the abilities of city planners to provide the infrastructure that is needed to provide services and transportation to those who live and work in these dense clusters. But just as important as such bread-and-butter concerns as the provision of good public transport, power grids and sanitation are the psychological affordances of these teeming centers of human activity. With projects such as our Psychology on the Street, we are hoping to contribute to the most important discussion of all: how can urban design contribute to the mental health and resilience of a large population of overtaxed and stressed citizens? How can psychology help to make successful cities possible?
What are your research interests, Greg?
I work in the nexus of biology and psychology, studying the impacts of nature experience on human cognitive function, mood, and emotion regulation.
You've just published a research study that looks at the links between nature and mental health. What got you interested in this subject?
My interest in this area comes from a desire to investigate the value that natural landscapes may provide for people with respect to mental health. Following in the footsteps of the compelling work before me in environmental psychology, I set out to determine whether I would obtain empirical evidence for the impact of nature experience on cognitive function, mood, and emotion regulation, using the tools of psychology. I also want to explore ways of incorporating this evidence into urban design and decision making.
Briefly, can you describe what your study involved?
38 people came into the lab and filled out a questionnaire on their current levels of rumination (repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self). They also underwent a brain scan. They were randomly assigned to a 90-min walk in either a natural setting (a park near Stanford) or an urban setting (beside a busy street in Palo Alto). Upon completion of the walk, participants filled out the rumination questionnaire again, and underwent a second, follow-up scan. We analyzed whether there was a differential change in nature vs. urban walkers in both self-reported rumination (the questionnaire) and in a part of the brain that has been shown to be active during rumination (the subgenual prefrontal cortex).
What did your study find?
Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment.
How do you believe that exposure to nature achieves this impact on people's mental health?
This is an active area of exploration for us — and we hope to publish some findings on this soon.
Given that your study involved healthy participants, do you think the nature exposure is more likely to help prevent depression, or could it also be helpful for people who are already depressed?
We do not know the answer to how nature experience will impact rumination in depressed individuals, as our study focused on healthy participants.
What are the practical implications of your study's findings for urban planners, designers and developers?
More work needs to be done in this arena, but our work, along with the work of others, is helping to contribute to an overall body of evidence that nature experience provides benefits to human cognitive function and mood. This knowledge can inform the ways in which urban planners incorporate nature into cities, and provide accessible natural landscapes for urban and suburban residents. It can also provide support for conservation of open space and wilderness areas in policy design.
What's next for you in your research? (And what would you like to see other researchers address on this topic?)
We are exploring our hypothesis that emotion regulation shifts are a possible causal mechanism for the cognitive function and mood benefits that we have observed to be resultant from nature vs. urban experience. I hope that other researchers continue to explore both the characteristics of the impacts of nature experience, possible causal mechanisms, and how these impacts may or may not be moderated by individual differences.
For people who want to learn more about the links between nature, urban design, and impact on mental health, what other research studies or other resources do you recommend they might like to read?
There is more to list here than room allows, but I would start with a great textbook which was recently published entitled Environmental Psychology by Linda Steg (Editor), Agnes E. van den Berg (Editor), Judith I. M. de Groot (Editor)— it includes a great overview of theory and some of the classic studies in this area.
Learn more about Greg Bratman's study:
Read the original research paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
Read about the research in the New York Times.
Watch Greg talk about his research in this video:
Sanity and Urbanity: