This Is Your Brain on Nature

Edinburgh, Scotland research subject / Mobility, Mood, and Place research study

Neurosurgeon Edie Zusman, a real-life Doogie Howser who started medical school at 19 and has completed some 6,000 brain and spinal surgeries, said what landscape architects do saves far more lives than what she does. The early prevention of disease reduces the need for surgeries. Prevention is made possible by eating healthy foods and walking and getting exercise in green environments that lower stress and improve well-being.

At the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting, Zusman and a number of landscape architecture professors delved into research proving that access to nature improves our health and well-being.

According to Sara Jensen Carr, a professor at Northeastern University, landscape architecture and public health have been intertwined since the beginning. Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of the profession, started his career as a public health officer and writer. His first projects were the “siting and planning of camps so soldiers wouldn’t get sick.”

In our contemporary era of science, the brilliant intuition of Olmsted has only been proven by study after study. Most recently, a study in Philadelphia by five doctors with the University of Pennsylvania found that greening vacant, derelict lots led to “significant decreases” in feelings of depression and worthlessness among those in low-income communities living near the lots.

Studies on the health benefits of integrating nature into the built environment are also being conducted by design professors. William Sullivan, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been trying to figure out the “dose of nature” people need to recover from stress and regain the ability to pay attention.

He gave an overview of his intriguing research into how views of green streets “increase the rate of recovery from stress.” In one study with his associate Dr. Bin Jiang, the research team purposefully elevated stress levels in a few good-natured human guinea pigs, then asked them to watch videos of streets with different degrees of tree canopies — ranging from 2 percent tree cover to 62 percent. He found that “the greater the percentage increase of tree canopy, the faster the recovery.”

And in another study, Sullivan and his associate Dongying Li randomly assigned 94 students, equally male and female, to three settings: a classroom with no windows, one with a window view looking out on a barren landscape, or one with a window view looking out over greenery.

After students had completed 30 minutes of classroom activities in these different rooms, the students were given a 10 minute break. Sullivan and Li discovered those who had a green view bounced back, attention-wise, and were less stressed. This group “performed significantly better on standard tests of attention and showed significantly greater stress recovery than their peers who were assigned to classrooms without a green view.”

Impact of views to school landscapes on recovery from stress and fatigue by Dongying Li and WIlliam Sullivan / Landscape and Urban Planning.

Then Jenny Roe, an environmental psychologist who is director of the center for health and design at the University of Virginia, explained her research in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her team got some game folks to wear a device measuring alpha and beta brain waves, which looked somewhat similar to what Rick Moranis’ character was asked to wear in the Ghostbusters to determine if he was human or gatekeeper (see image at top).

Some very extroverted locals — who else who parade through town wearing EEG measurement devices? — followed a path through Leith, Edinburgh, a “rough area,” to a park. Others simply meandered through the city with their brain meter on. Roe found that among her research subjects, soothing alpha waves increased in the park while alert-state beta waves decreased. Alpha waves also decreased in busy urban areas.

But she found that “irrespective of which route people took” — through city or nature — “everyone’s stress levels were reduced after a 10-15 minute walk.” Walks, particularly for her older research subjects, increased exposure to “nature, color, wildlife, memories, and social interaction” — all good things.

Sullivan said all this research is meant to arm landscape architects, planners, and others who care about this with the facts they need to make the case to policy makers and legislators in their community.

Zusman wants designers to influence the big decisions — those key pivot points — that can help shape a healthier built environment. In Sacramento, where she practices medicine, Zusman is now part of the Design 4 Active advisory board, a multi-disciplinary group of health providers, planners, and design professionals, helping to integrate healthy design principles and guidelines into city projects.

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