We humans took up residence on this planet long before the emergence of cities, or what we call the urban environment where most of us now live. Many scientists have long believed that we are hard-wired to need connections to the natural world and our ancient brains need that connection to be happy and healthy. Our awareness of the natural world is much more pronounced in spring when leaf buds begin popping on tree branches and flowers begin showing their faces in our gardens. This, along with more birdsong and milder weather, and only the most hardened urbanite would remain unaware of a spiritual uplift.
In the 19th century cities like New York, became overcrowded dense urban environments lacking any connection with nature. Frederick Law Olmstead, who believed cities diminished optimal mental functioning thought everyone should have a chance for a restful place, not only the wealthy who could get away to their Adirondack Camps, or go sailing at Newport. In his report on the design for Prospect Park in 1866, Olmstead defined pastoral as “combinations of trees, standing singly or in groups, and casting their shadows over broad stretches of turf, or repeating their beauty by reflection upon the calm surface of pools.” He cited some Biblical poetry: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.”
In the 1870s Olmstead posted notices in tenements and sent circulars to all the doctors in New York City with directions to Central Park and Prospect Park including a description of how these natural destinations could aid convalescents. Now, of course, this makes sense. As cities expanded, doctors began prescribing nature to reduce the effects of illness. Health resorts and sanitariums were built in natural settings and given names like The Pines, River View, or Blue Hills.
We’ve all heard the terms green cities and sustainable cities, but the biophilic city may be a new one for some of us. Biophilic is defined as a natureful city by Tim Beatley, of the University of Virginia, who founded the Biophilic Cities Project. This led to Biophilic Cities Network, a global group of cities that each in its own way is working at making nature a bigger part of the urban experience. In his book Blue Urbanism, Beatley explores the connections between cities and the sea.
Early humans were drawn to water and shorelines for food and sustenance. But being in water, or near it, we are discovering, also reduces stress and calms us. I can personally attest to this. I like the ocean and live near Long Island Sound and can often be found sitting in my car or walking along overlooking the waves crashing on the shore. There is something about the rhythm of the waves that I find soothing. When my mother was ill and on hospice care in our home, I would go down to the beach to catch my breath. It was the one place I could go that settled me down and focused me for the challenges of caring.
In the United Kingdom, Professor George Mackerron’s research focuses on the economics of subjective wellbeing and environmental quality (link). He developed and operates the “Mappiness” study. He is also the chief technical officer at Psychological Technologies, where they are making apps to support mindfulness and experience sampling techniques. You can download a Mappiness app to your iPhone and record how you feel in your environment. Mackerron’s studies reveal that people are happier in a natural environment.
Florence Williams talks about using the Mappiness app in her new book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. In a New York Times book review, Jason Mark wrote, “Williams shadows researchers on three continents working in nature neuroscience. He points out the many aspects covered in the book. “Perhaps it’s the soundscape, since water and, especially birdsong have been proven to improve mood and alertness. Natural landscapes are literally, easy on the eyes.”
A recent article in the online journal Business Insider by Lauren Friedman and Kevin Loria titled: “11 scientific reasons you should be spending more time outside” includes improved short-term memory, restored mental energy, and stress relief. They cite a study that found a decrease in both heart rate and levels of cortisol in subjects in the forest when compared with those in the city. Other reasons include reduced inflammation, better vision and improved concentration. For example, comparing groups that either took a walk through nature or a walk through the city or just relaxed, the nature group scored the best on a proofreading task. One study found that people immersed in nature for four days boosted their performance on a creative problem solving test by 50 percent. Another study found that walks in the forest were specifically associated with decreased levels of anxiety and bad moods, and another found that outdoor walks could be useful clinically as a supplement to existing treatments for major depressive disorder.”
So get outside and revitalize your spirit with walks in the park or along the waterfront. Take a closer look at the trees and flowers around you, or spend more time in the garden. It is truly a spiritual tonic, a bowl of chicken soup for the soul.