Serious New Funding for Innovative Research on Restorative Urban Nature

greenspace
According to the TKF Foundation, more than 80 percent of the U.S. population and 50 percent of the global population now live in urban areas. To ensure people can live in dense environments packed with people, parks and open space are critical. Without those, people flee to the suburbs to get away and have access to more nature.

So to green cities, landscape architects and planners are now “comprehensively integrating ecology and nature into built environments using systems approaches, such as green infrastructure, low impact development, and urban landscape ecology.” The cost of these efforts is justified by “call outs of better air and water quality; reduced heat island effect; and reduced carbon emissions.” While those benefits are clearly very valuable to quantify, there has been a recent movement to quantify the human health and well-being benefits of all this urban green in “stress recovery, improved mental health, faster healing and improved community situations, including lower crime rates.”

But, they argue, Americans still often want their nature to be pristine — they want to access nature in “grand natural areas that inspire awe and instill a deep, meaningful sense of the power of nature.” The trick is to then create urban places where people can also experience the “power of nature.”

So they’ve started the National Open Spaces, Sacred Places, a design and research initiative, which is designed to “propel greater community commitments to creating those spaces that satisfy the soul.” To this end, the foundation recently announced $4.5 million in awards for six landscape design and research projects, involving some top researchers from the fields of neuroscience, genomics, immunology, psychology, and others.

According to the foundation, this “collection of exceptional spaces will demonstrate how nearby nature in the city can provide sacred and spiritual experiences. Each project will combine the creation of tranquil, restorative spaces in urban environments with rigorous study of their impact on users’ well-being and resilience.” The landscapes were selected because they “target and engage an urban population in need.”

The six projects will share some common characteristics, which seem rooted in biophilic design concepts:

  • They must include a “portal,” which is defined as an “archway, a gate, a stand of trees, a pergola, or other marker” where “there is a clear movement from the space of everyday life and functioning.”
  • Each site features a path, “whether linear and well-defined, or more meandering.” Paths allow people to focus their “attention and achieve a mindfulness about the surroundings.”
  • Landscapes will also have a destination, “an appealing feature or end point” that can “draw in a person to the welcoming space.” TKF Foundation describes this as a “sojourn, however brief,” that is “rewarded by a feature that encourages quiet, fascination, joy, and spiritual connection with nature.”
  • Lastly, the “surround,” or design elements, such as plantings, fencing, or trees must be included to “provide an encompassing sense of boundary, safety and enclosure. Portal, path and destination invite one to experience a space; the sense of surround ensures that one experiences a sense of being away and an emotional separation from the stress and challenges of life.”

Each landscape will also include a “signature bench” where visitors are invited to sit and write in a journal attached. Since 1995, TKF Foundation has been creating “temporary green refuges” in universities, “tough inner-city neighborhoods, in hospitals, and prisons,” writes Grist. In these places, they’ve created access to journals, where visitors can sit and write down their thoughts. From these, more than 20,000 comments have been collected and transcribed.  The foundations writes that in these journals, “one finds remarkable, heartfelt testimonials about the power of nature to transform, heal and bring clarity through reflection.” Based on these comments, the foundation decided to enroll scientists to further study the health and well-being benefits of nature.

The six projects:

The Green Road Project at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center: “Built on a woodland section of the campus, it will surround ‘Wounded Warriors’ and their families with the healing powers of nature in an oasis of respite—and combine a healing, patient-centered approach with rigorous data on what works to improve the health of veterans.”

Dr. Fred Foote (CAPT, MC, USN, Ret.) said the Green Road project will use three metrics to study the impact of the space on patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): “combined biomarkers of the stress response; qualitative analysis of journals and stories using natural language processing; and advanced genomics.”

A Green Space a Day: “Following up on findings from research conducted in Japan and the Netherlands that links being in nature with healthy immune response, A Greenspace a Day research will help determine what it is about nature that improves immune functioning and reduces stress for urban dwellers.”

According to TKF Foundation, Frances Kuo, PhD, Landscape and Human Health Laboratory, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, plans to study “existing green spaces created by the TKF Foundation and its partners in the Mid-Atlantic region to pinpoint which design features enhance the functioning of the immune system, particularly in distressed and vulnerable populations.”

Landscapes of Resilience: This project will examine how “new open space, sacred places can contribute to community resilience while supporting recovery from an array of major crises — human, natural, technological and even political.”

The research will be conducted by Keith Tidball, PhD, an Extension Associate and Associate Director of the Cornell University Civic Ecology Lab, and Erika Svendsen, PhD, a Research Social Scientist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Measuring What Works for Healthy Green Spaces: “While a body of evidence has shown that nature improves health outcomes and cognitive functioning, the missing link is still why these effects occur. Measuring What Works for Healthy Green Spaces aims to determine what it is about nature that has such tremendous effects on our brains and our health and create guidelines for the future design of natural spaces.”

The research will be conducted by Marc Berman, PhD, University of South Carolina, who wonders what about nature has a positive impact on our mental health.

Naval Cemetery Landscape in Brookyln: “As one node of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative – a 14-mile commuting route for non-motorized transportation – the Naval Cemetery Landscape project will seek to provide restorative relief to individuals from the urban environment. Sited atop an old cemetery at the former Brooklyn Navy Yard, this new meadow will revitalize the native plant and pollinator populations in the region and attract other forms of life that depend on thriving numbers of these native inhabitants.”

The project is being led by Milton Puryear, Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, who is partnering with the Green School of East Williamsburg and Brooklyn Community Housing and Services. In addition, Christopher Weiss, PhD, NYU’s Applied Quantitative Research Methods Program, will “collect data from The Green School students and BCHS residents throughout the lifetime of the project, measuring their reaction and response to the natural space as it develops.”

A Nature Place, Portland, Oregon: “A preterm baby — a child born before 37 weeks of pregnancy — is at heightened risk of physical and developmental problems. The earlier the birth, the greater the risk. And a mother’s stress is a significant contributor to preterm delivery. Realizing this, Legacy Health is combining its traditional medical expertise with the healing power of open green spaces to create a four-season garden at the Family Birth Center and Cardiovascular Care Unit at its Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland, Oregon. Patients and their families will be able to walk through and rest in the garden, adding to their peace of mind and rebuilding their strength. There will even be special equipment to make sure less-mobile patients — such as pregnant women on bed rest and patients with reduced mobility — can spend time outside.”

The research component will be lead by Roger S. Ulrich, PhD.

Explore the projects.

Image credit: A Green Space a Day / TKF Foundation via Grist.

One thought on “Serious New Funding for Innovative Research on Restorative Urban Nature

  1. scientiste 08/07/2013 / 5:57 pm

    Reblogged this on Mental Flowers and commented:
    So many studies have found natural spaces to be beneficial for healing and mental health, so it is crucial as we become more urbanized to allow space for nature to sneak in.

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