I have been invited to give a keynote address at the 2017 Urban Ecology & Conservation Symposium on February 6. The talk will provide an overview of my research, and that of a broader community of science, concerning nature and health. A summary can be found at the Green Cities: Good Health web site.
I have been working in this general knowledge area for nearly 10 years. As a producer and consumer of the research findings, I find that the knowledge has changed my daily life. Many of you are committed to the hard work of planning, conserving and managing natural resources and natural areas. It is challenging, never-ending work. I want to take this opportunity to share some ideas about how nature nourishes you in your everyday lives.
I'm a Pacific Northwest native, having grown up in Tacoma, Washington. After some years living in South Florida and Michigan, for work and graduate school, my family returned to the place of both social and landscape kinship. I enjoy the many opportunities for outdoor recreation, from snow cap to white cap. Hiking, camping, kayaking, clamming and birding – these are activities that take me away to experiences of renewal and recharge.
The research on forest bathing in Japan provides insights about why a few days away in nature is valuable. More than a decade of research on shinrin yoku shows that a few hours to a day or two of simply being in forests, mostly walking, can improve immune function, reduce stress and diabetes symptoms, and improve cardiovascular conditions. Studies also suggest that more lengthy nature encounters may be therapeutic for veterans and other people experiencing PTSD.
I also enjoy visiting public gardens. These spaces are carefully curated to present plant collections in ways that reference local horticultural conditions and cultural legacies. Some now offer health-oriented programs such as “Strolls for Well-Being” and preschooler-oriented Forest Schools. Each is informed by compelling evidence of nature benefits.
Nature, even in a small space, supports mindfulness – as the clouds in the sky, a bee moving about, or interesting flowers encourage cognitive focus.
I particularly enjoy Japanese gardens. I visited about a dozen in Kyoto this past October. It was my fourth trip to the city, and rather than ticking off new gardens on my lengthy list, I visited some old-friend kind of spaces. Tucked in and around work, I visited gardens mid-week, mid-day. They beckon one to turn off, tune out, and savor the nature that has been carefully groomed for centuries. Some garden interpreters say that these gardens are miniature landscape representations. Rather, I find that they capture the essence of the best of landscape experiences, using exquisite and very deliberate placement of natural objects.
These interests, excursions to big nature and public garden visits, have been favorites from when I was a young adult. But more recently, in direct response to research of the past couple of decades, I intentionally take in nearby nature to improve general wellness and work productivity. Here are some insights that you might find useful in your own life:
Get up and leave your desk. Routinely sitting for long periods of time increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. The Mayo Clinic claims that the risk of heart attack is about the same for people who sit most of the day as it is for smokers. While stand-up desks may help, actually getting out and walking in a natural setting not only improves circulation but helps reduce stress and other physiological benefits.
Practice mindfulness. As we have become more busy, and tethered to digital devices, we are less likely to be in the moment. Mindfulness is the effort to focus one’s awareness in the present moment and space, helping to reduce anxiety by negotiating feelings, thoughts and decisions in a more deliberate way. People who practice mindfulness in the work place have been shown to achieve better mental health, reduce stress, and have better immune function. Nature, even in a small space, supports mindfulness – as the clouds in the sky, a bee moving about, or interesting flowers encourage cognitive focus.
Reduce depression. Winter is a season when many feel mild depression. And an increasing number of U.S. adults are being diagnosed with clinical depression. Studies show that physical activity – and it doesn’t have to be strenuous exercise – helps alleviate depression. Walking outdoors in green settings is even more effective. Research suggests that neural activity in a brain region active during rumination – meaning repetitive thought focused on negative emotions – decreases when one walks in nature versus in a more built environment.
Improve mental productivity. Working on complex tasks for lengthy periods of time weakens the ability to concentrate. Breaks are helpful. But Attention Restoration Theory posits that nature provides the settings that most readily help us to restored our cognitive abilities. Nature’s facets are sources of "soft fascination" that reduce the need to actively direct attention, rejuvenating the mind after cognitive fatigue.
Be more creative. One study in Denmark found that creative professionals who spend time in nature claimed to be more curious about things (leading to new ideas), and experience more flexible thinking. They reported that the early preparation phase and later idea-incubation phase of a project were aided by time in nature. I started bicycle commuting about 10 years ago and find that some of my most creative ideas come while moving back and forth to work. The cadence of pedaling, combined with attention restoration, helps me work out the kinks of analysis or writing.
Try walking meetings. In recent years I have started suggesting walking meetings for small groups. This began when I noticed a different social and creative dynamic with a group that met regularly for coffee when we all walked together. Some cities in the world have places called philosophers walks, where people walk together to mull over and discuss ideas. This hasn’t been studied, per se; maybe it should be my next research effort.
We can often see how the research translates to our lives. For example, some years ago, a graduate student I worked with wanted to understand what people were learning when visiting a medicinal herb garden on the University of Washington campus. His study notion was that people came to learn about history and remedy. I cautioned him to expand his survey questions. To his frustration, and really my surprise, few visitors even realized it was a plant collection. Staff, students and even a few professors visited the garden as a walking destination and a place where they could sit quietly and recharge in nature.
The Intertwine is a workshed for a broad, diverse community of practice. People work on complex projects, and with great passion. This work can bring on fatigue and stress. So I encourage you, based on remarkable, international research literature, to take the time to nurture yourself in nature, even as you work to create landscapes that thrive.