Loeb Lab 3: Naturespace

Mary Eysenbach (LF 2004), director of conservatories in the Chicago Park District, has an evangelist’s passion about humans’ need for regular doses of nature and a scientist’s curiosity about the effects of being in nature on city-dwellers. She has penned the current installment of Loeb Lab, and she makes a persuasive case.

What if I told you that I had a treatment that could lower blood pressure, decrease both respiratory and pulse rates, create a meditative-like brain state, increase attention in children afflicted with ADHD, and boost the human immune system? 

Would you sign up for such a treatment? Would you rush to invest in the pharmaceutical company that produced such an important drug?

The treatment is Vitamin N(ature).  Some call it Vitamin G (for green).  Whatever its name, the fact is that an emerging body of research is demonstrating what so many have intuitively known for centuries: contact with nature is good for human health.  In the concrete jungles of our cities, contact with trees, flowers, rocks, and sunlight actually promotes health.  We aren't sure why, although researchers are getting closer and closer to decoding the mystery.  For now, I am satisfied with the explanation provided by E.O.Wilson, the Harvard biologist who used the term "biophilia” to explain our attraction to nature.  Dr. Wilson surmises that because humans co-evolved with and in the natural world, we are innately, deeply connected to it.  It was necessary for human survival to learn to read the landscape in order to feed ourselves, predict storms, and sense the presence of predators.  Given that we are not many generations past an agricultural society, it makes sense that our genes and physiology are happiest when we are paying attention to nature or viewing natural scenes.

When the industrial revolution began, nature was the last thing on people's minds.  Cities grew and swelled with populations eager to make a living without having to depend on the whims of Mother Nature.  But, no matter how hard they tried, the new urban dwellers could not cut the apron springs.  They longed for Mother Nature.  In response, a few visionary urban planners and designers, such as Daniel Burnham, Fredrick Law Olmsted, and Jens Jensen recognized the human need for nature and decided to create a place for nature in cities.  Public parks, gardens and green boulevards were the primary tools they used.  But over time, nature took a back seat again.  Boulevards lost trees to street-widening for automobiles, and many public parks converted their green trees and vistas to paved courts and backstops.  Little by little, nature in the city diminished, to our detriment.

The research has merely touched on the truth: contact with the nature from which we came is vital for human health.  I remember first reading Roger Ulrich's findings that a green view from a hospital window was correlated with reduced need for pain medication and a shorter hospital stay.  This research has strengthened the movement for healing gardens, especially connected with hospitals.  What struck me about his findings at the time was that they had huge implications for urban design – especially in poorer neighborhoods where there is plenty of pain to go around.  Instead of healing gardens, I believe we need to put nature within reach of every city inhabitant.  We need a new form of urban design called "naturespace,” where people can have contact with nature.

The first reason is that our current nature experiences are few and far between.  While we do have some nature places in our cities, they are typically destinations for a Sunday outing.  To be most effective, they need to be designed into the activities of daily living.  Just as the Robert Wood Foundation's research found that weaving physical activity into daily activities is more effective in creating an active population than individual program interventions, so too must naturespace follow the same pattern.  If I can walk or drive through or by a naturespace on my way to work, I am more likely to have contact than if I have to make a special trip. 

The second reason naturespace needs its own designation is that nature is typically secondary to whatever land use it exists on.  It might be part of a park or cemetery, a schoolyard or boulevard, and it’s vulnerable to being obliterated in the name of accomplishing some other land use objective .  Even "natural areas” in cities tend to hold objectives more related to ecology than human experience, and sometimes humans are discouraged from interacting with them.  These land use forms are all necessary, as is naturespace.

The exact form of a naturespace designation should be determined by the city enacting it, though I am tempted to recommend that naturespace fall within the realm of the public health department.  Cities must be prepared to use easements, overlay districts, zoning, ordinances, or whatever tool accomplishes the goal of connecting people to nature.

That isn't to say that naturespace can’t co-exist with other forms: parks or parkways or parking lots.  But once land is designated as naturespace, human contact with nature must become its primary use.

As profound an effect naturespace has on human health, this designation has economic implications. The positive impact of parks and green space on property values and other revenues has been widely discussed ever since Fredrick Law Olmsted proved the financial return on investment of Central Park to New York City.  What hasn't been widely studied is the health care cost significance of contact with nature. WebMD states that "75 – 90% of doctor's visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.”  Imagine the amount of money that could be saved if, instead of paying for medical care, we invested in a way for people to reduce their stress through contact with nature.

We have a lot to learn about how to design naturespaces.  How much land is enough?  Do you even need land?  Would a living wall or vertical garden suffice?  Do flowers have more impact than trees? We know that merely viewing nature creates positive mental and physical health results?  Does being in nature amplify that?  Researchers in the field are becoming more creative by the day.  One of the latest studies involved functional (and portable) MRI studies of participants’ brains while they walked through a variety of urban settings, including a park – that's the one that discovered that the green setting changed brain wave activity.

My institution, the Garfield Park Conservatory, is contributing to this research by building a Children's Wild Garden.  One of the key goals of the garden is to determine how to design natural settings in which adults feel comfortable but children perceive wildness.  We will partner with various research institutions to study the essence of these experiences. We will need to tweak and change designs according to what the users - both children and adults - tell us.  Most importantly, we will use these lessons to achieve the overarching vision of replicating these in naturespaces all over the country.


Missed the first couple of Loeb Lab: Cities for the 21st Century essays? See them here:
Loeb Lab 1: Five Ingredients for Successful Places
Loeb Lab 2: Working City

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One Response to Loeb Lab 3: Naturespace

  1. Kate says:

    This is an exciting topic- as an urban planning student, I’m often surprised at how there seems to be relatively little public knowledge regarding public health and space on a city-wide scale. Studies on parks and open space often seem to focus on beautification, conservation, or recreation, rather than the health of residents and visitors.
    Thank you for sharing about your work on naturespace, I look forward to reading more about results of the research!

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