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.
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