Maximizing the Health Benefits of Landscapes

Forest bathing in a Japanese cedar forest / Dr. Qing Li, via Hiking Research

Nature can make our daily lives, which are mostly spent in buildings, much better. With access to ample sunlight; lots of indoor plants; views of trees, green roofs, and gardens outside; and the incorporation of natural building materials, designers can boost our well-being and productivity. But our landscapes really are the places to create the deeply restorative connections so critical to our health. In a talk at the Biophilic Leadership Summit, hosted at Serenbe, an agricultural community outside of Atltanta, Julia Africa, program leader, nature, health, and the built environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health‘s Center for Health and the Global environment, and Micah Lipscomb, ASLA, senior landscape architect with Perkins + Will, offered a few ways to maximize the health benefits of our landscapes.

Africa has been doing extensive research on forest bathing programs in South Korea and Japan. According to Africa, “forest therapy centers can provide a range of services, including health assessments and counseling, fresh local foods, hot springs, and guided walks through forests believed to have medicinal properties.” Spending time in forests can provide cognitive, emotional, and physical benefits, but she added there’s “some debate as to whether the benefits spring from physical (phytoncides, exercise), sensory, or social stimuli.” She said while Japan is perhaps more well-known for “Shinrin Yoku” at its centers, South Korea is catching up and may have the more ambitious long-term strategy.

According to Africa, Korea Forest Service plans to open 34 public healing forests and two national forest healing centers by 2017. The goal is to engage Koreans “from cradle to grave” by building a continuous, life-long relationship with healing forests. To perhaps counter the increasingly-widespread digital addiction experienced by Koreans, caused by their smart phones and ubiquitous high-speed broadband, they seek to create “forest welfare services, a system in which forests are used to create health and well-being for the welfare of the nation across various life stages.” Furthermore, “500 forest healing instructors will be trained to staff these centers. And interdisciplinary medical research is planned, with the potential to yield a staggering amount of data on forest bathers.” Africa seemed awed by the effort, wondering “how can we apply this to the United States?”

Japan has 60-plus forest therapy bases, with 100 planned in the future. With the help of her translator Hui Wang, she interviewed five managers of forest bathing centers to better understand how they work. She found that “some forest bathing centers have relationships with companies that have an interest in the region, either through commerce or personal relationships. Employees may be sent to the centers for a few days as a subsidized health amenity. Rudimentary ‘health checks’ for basic indicators like blood pressure, heart rate, reflexes may provide a point of assessment at the beginning and end of a forest visit. If they enter a guided program, a daily schedule may include educational sessions, therapeutic meals, and instruction on taking in the forest through all five senses. Sugi and Hinoki trees are particularly sought after features of the environment, as they are believed to produce phytoncides, a broad class of aerosols that some believe ward off pests and, also, coincidentally, benefit human health.”

Forest bathing in a Cypress forest / Dr. Qi Ling, via Hiking Research

Africa wanted to discover if the forest bathing centers are “linked — functionally or notionally — with any other therapeutic landscapes or facilities?” She found that “no, they are isolated experiences, and the healing experience is conducted in forest bathing parks only.” Learn more about her research.

Africa made another interesting point: our relationship with nature is evolving, because nature itself is in a dynamic state of change, particularly as the effects of climate change ripple through our ecosystems. “Simply examining what appeals to us about nature and why is too simple. We need to keep refreshing our understanding as nature keeps changing.”

Citing Roger Ulrich’s important study of how a view of trees in a hospital room reduced recovery times and pain medication use, Lipscomb focused us on Perkins + Will‘s work to bring nature into healthcare environments. At the Spaudling Rehabitation Center in Charlestown, Masschusetts, patients look out over where the Mystic and Chelsea Rivers meet or a green roof designed by landscape architects at Copley-Wolff Design Group. Other patients doing physical therapy have ample sunlight indoors or can go outside in the garden to do their routines.

Spaudling Rehabilitation Center / Perkins + Will
Spaudling Rehabilitation Center green roof / Perkins + Will
Spaudling Rehabilitation Center / Perkins + Will
Spaulding rehabilitation center garden / Copley Wolff Design Group

At the CARTI Cancer Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, patients in the cancer ward receiving infusions look out on a green roof designed by Perkins + Will.

CARTI Cancer Center / Nick Merrick

On a technical note: Lipscomb cautioned that maintaining biodiverse species of plants in a designed landscape can be challenging for maintenance workers, so either there needs to be a budget for long-term training and maintenance, or landscapes need to feature hardy plants. “Align your plants with the anticipated level of maintenance.”

Lastly, Lipscomb is working on building biophilic connections for his own office of landscape architects and architects at Perkins + Will in Atlanta. Those working hard to integrate nature into our daily lives now get to experience the same benefits themselves. Partnering with University of Notre Dame psychologist Kim Rollings, Lispcomb brought lots of plants into some parts of the office, but not others, and established a control group to test whether there are cognitive benefits from gazing at them. They’ll release their findings in The Dirt early summer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s