The World Health Organisation has recognised that increasing urbanisation is reshaping urban population health problems, with depression expected to be the second leading cause of loss disability-adjusted life years by 2030. It is widely accepted that the natural environment has a positive effect on health and wellbeing and plays a role in disease prevention.
Nature in an urban environment can foster a sense of community which is key for improved health and wellbeing as connection with local community can reduce the risk of long-term health conditions such as depression, heart disease and increase life expectancy.
Since the 1950s, psychologists have recognised the importance of community for individual and group wellbeing by understanding human behaviour from both a social and physical environmental perspective. More recently, epidemiologists have shown how mental health outcomes are influenced by community connections, belonging, networks, social cohesion and social capital, therefore a sense of community is considered a preventative method to mitigate against psychological and physical illnesses.
Therefore, urban design should not just consider access to nature and green space but also the interactions that this can facilitate to encourage connection with place both with nature and community which is vital for health and wellbeing.
Outdoor gym, Clapham, London. Photograph by Author.
How can nature foster a sense of community?
In the field of community psychology, a sense of community has been defined by membership, influence, integration and fulfilment of needs as well as a shared emotional connection. Arguably these factors, particularly emotional connection, can be facilitated in green environments.
An experiment conducted by psychologists at the University of Rochester with virtual images, showed the more nature the study group were exposed to, the more likely they were to value emotional connections with other people and have increased generosity than those exposed to city views. Those that were not exposed to nature images were more focused on external goals such as increasing personal income. The research suggests that nature is significant in cultivating values that influence wellbeing and building a sense of community.
Why do humans need to connect to nature and community?
There are some theories that exist which aim to understand why interaction with nature has a positive impact on health and wellbeing. The biophilia hypothesis is a theory commonly referred to, particularly as increasing research through design practice shows the positive impact of biophilic design. However, the topophilia hypothesis provides a further suggestion to why interaction with nature is important in terms of fostering a sense of community.
The topophilia hypothesis suggests that humans possess a genetic bias to form bonds with local place which may have evolved due to the need to learn and share knowledge related to local nature for survival. It has been predicted that bonding with place is a critical element of mental health.
Further research is required to investigate the validity of the theory, however if significant evidence can support this, it would provide greater weight for urban design to encourage connection of place through nature and green space.
The challenge for urban design
Nature and green space in an urban environment could be viewed as the heart of building a healthy and happy community, as connecting with both nature and community is arguably an innate need we have as humans. However, green space is limited in urban environments.
Urban design needs to rethink how nature is integrated into our cities and ensure that the community is involved in projects that promote green infrastructure and urban greening to build a sense of community and place. Some inspiring initiatives are listed below:
Wellbeing can be constructed in our cities. In many urban societies, material wealth is traditionally viewed as the path to happiness: a wardrobe of disposable fashion, a better and faster car, a bigger house. We know that this isn’t necessarily a positive influence on wellbeing.
Perhaps through a greater focus on connecting with nature in our cities, we can build more resilient communities where everyone can have the opportunity to experience an increased sense of place and belonging in the world in which they live.
‘The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship’
Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Nature’, 1836
Community Garden, London. Photograph by Author.
About the Author
Sanity and Urbanity: