City design and planning can enhance many aspects of people’s lives, but what about sleep? Sleep is easy to forget because it’s a biological necessity that cannot be avoided. However, adequate sleep impacts physical, emotional, and mental health and urban planning can contribute to the sleep health of an entire community.
Design, nature and sleep
The effects of an urban environment on the mind and body revolve around green space and its impact on overall health. In as early as 1984, physicians began to notice that patients who either had a view of or spent time in a garden area recovered faster. That led to a review published in Science, wherein hospital records from 1972 through 1981 were thoroughly examined to see if patients healed faster in rooms with a view. It was concluded that a view of nature rather than a brick wall consistently shortened recovery times.
At the time, it was considered groundbreaking research. Roger Ulrich, who conducted this first review, continued his research and found several key components that contributed to improved patient outcomes. Today, these findings are regularly incorporated into modern hospital design. However, the value of his findings goes well beyond a medical setting into daily use for those not recovering from medical procedures.
Three of Ulrich’s components that led to shorter recovery times can also be applied to sleep-enhancing environments.
The research begs the question as to why natural environments stimulate the brain differently than built-up urban environments. One answer lies in the different forms of human attention. When reading a book, driving, or writing, the brain pays direct attention to the task at hand. Urban settings require decision-making from navigating traffic to acknowledging strangers. It requires mental effort and discipline that can fatigue the mind.
On the other hand, involuntary attention happens without concentrated effort. The rustle of leaves, a bird flying by, or bright flowers involuntarily capture the mind’s attention without concentration. The restorative nature of involuntary attention is encapsulated in attention restoration theory. When boiled down to the basics, this theory implies that nature requires very little of the human brain to keep its attention. That in and of itself restores mental energy just like food and water restore physical energy. It entertains while requiring nothing of the brain, creating the right conditions for relaxation and, eventually, sleep.
The average adult needs a full seven to nine hours of sleep for complete restoration. Environments that can reduce stress and anxiety will naturally contribute to better sleep. Healthy sleep contributes to immune system health, appetite regulation, diet, and a reduced risk of diseases and illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
While hospitals may have been the first to realize the value of green space, we now know it can improve more than recovery times, and this is a design factor no longer just for hospitals. In an increasingly urban society, it creates an environment that improves, sustains, and actively contributes to the mental and physical health of those who live in it.
Designing for better sleep
Design that enhances sleep tends to both reduce noise and increase access to green space. Plans may require a combination of design techniques to achieve optimal conditions. For example, planning major roadways away from residential areas while using earth bunds and sound barriers to reduce the sound waves that reach residential areas. Noise-tolerant buildings and sound-proofing insulation can reduce noise even further.
Good planning for restorative sleep also makes room for green space. Planners must also consider the kind of green space people want to use. In general, large, open spaces that use the natural landscape attract more users than small parks. However, it might be necessary to get creative when finding green space. Transforming rooftops into gardens and old railways into trails are two common examples. Looking for unused or forgotten areas that can be used as green spaces can increase access and better utilize what’s already available. Residential areas with communal green space and walking access to parks creates a sense of community and can promote the mental health of residents. The key is to make them accessible and usable. Trail networks along with pedestrian-only walkways and bridges provide safer access.
Planning and designing for mental health includes sleep-enhancing measures such as noise reduction and views of nature. Picture credit.
About the Author
Samantha Kent is a researcher for SleepHelp.org. Her favorite writing topic is how getting enough sleep can improve your life. Currently residing in Boise, Idaho, she sleeps in a California King bed, often with a cat on her face.
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