Veteran’s Day Focus: Healing PTSD with Nature

Invisible wounds. It’s a haunting phrase and one that’s become all too familiar to a vast number of the military men and women serving in conflict zones in recent years. These wounds, a fact of modern war, have proven particularly vexing to the medical teams whose job it is to treat our troops. As many as 40 percent of soldiers returning from active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan experience these wounds, which all too often lead to suicide, according to Fred Foote, a former Naval physician, scholar of the Institute for Integrative Health, fierce advocate for wounded veterans, and leader of the Green Road project.

Let that number sink in. Forty percent; a staggering statistic that is devastating — to the military, to each of the lives the number represents.

I had my first intimate impression of the suffering being borne by so many soldiers while working with a film called That Which I Love Destroys Me; it too dealt with the hidden wounds of war. I became friends with the men and women who were interviewed for the piece; they helped shape my perspective — my thinking and understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury. In connection with the film’s release, we held a series of screening events to specifically reach those who had served. At almost every gathering, at least one would approach the director, or one of the people interviewed in the film, and say that they were contemplating suicide. The reality of this was devastating — coming face-to-face with those who had given so much for our safety and freedom. I became keenly aware of the need for more ways to help them.

The Green Road

It was during a time when mainstream news of veteran suicides was coming with increased frequency that the TKF Foundation received the grant application from the Institute for Integrative Health for what would become the Green Road — a green space designed and built by a team led by CDM Smith, including landscape architect Jack Sullivan, FASLA.

The proposal involved taking a forested piece of land at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and, while keeping the integrity of the space, making it into a place where the recovering men and women could experience nature as a part of their healing process. Once completed, researchers would study and document the impact of nature on recovery, using a set of newly defined mathematically-based metrics that map and measure the effects of nature on the body. The insights they gain will be used to inform future courses of therapy—not only at Walter Reed but potentially around the globe.

We were immediately drawn to the project. And I was instantly reminded of the men and women I met during my work with That Which I Love Destroys Me.

We know that nature heals, but we also know, like Dr. Foote, that much work remains if we are to convince many naysayers, who still see nature as lacking the potency of a pill; of being a legitimate form of treatment to stand alongside and augment traditional therapies.

Our hope is that this space will act as a blueprint and that more will begin to appear in communities throughout the US; everywhere veterans are suffering. Nature holds an undeniable power to foster healing, even when the psychological wounds are deeper than most of us could ever imagine.

Faced with the rise in traumatic brain injury and PTSD, the military, urged by voices like Fred’s, was convinced a little over 10 years ago, to begin searching for new modes of treatment; notably, modes that stretch beyond the confines of conventional medicine. Enter nature.

In the decade since the military reached out to Dr. Foote, an early proponent of holistic medicine, and of nature exposure, he has worked with prominent civilian and military experts to help craft a structured means to study and measure the impact of whole-body therapies on mental and physical health. Supported by the non-profit Institute for Integrative Health, it was this work that eventually led to the creation of the Green Road, and to the involvement of the TKF Foundation via our National Nature Sacred Awards program.

Today, behind the tightly manicured lawns and sprawling buildings of the nation’s flagship military medical complex at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, this wild yet defined, wooded space offers a refuge. A place to pause in an environment that heals.

Alden E. Stoner is a filmaker and board member of the nonprofit TKF Foundation.

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.

Experience Brooklyn Bridge Park in Virtual Reality

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn, NYC / Alexa Hoyer

Experience Virtual Reality! Immerse yourself in Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City, which won the ASLA 2018 Professional Award of Excellence in General Design. Explore this unique park built in part over abandoned piers, guided by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, president and CEO of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.

Viewing Options

Option 1: Watch a 360 Video on YouTube

If you are on your phone reading this page, simply click on this URL and watch it in your YouTube mobile app: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQ2geeXMThI (please note that this video will not work in your mobile browser)

Be sure to turn around while watching so you can see all angles of the park!

Or if you are on a desktop computer, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQ2geeXMThI using your Chrome browser.

Go to settings and set the resolution to 2610s.

Use the sphere icon to navigate through the park! Note: the 360 video will not work in Firefox or Internet Explorer.

YouTube 360 on mobile / YouTube
YouTube 360 on mobile / YouTube

Option 2: Watch a 3D 360 Video on Samsung Gear VR

If you own a Samsung Gear VR headset and compatible Samsung phone, go to Samsung Gear via the Oculus App and search for “Brooklyn Bridge Park” or “ASLA” to find our video.

Samsung Gear VR / Samsung
Samsung Gear VR / Samsung

Why Brooklyn Bridge Park?

ASLA selected Brooklyn Bridge Park because it won the ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Less than one percent of all award submissions receive this honor.

Our esteemed jury, made up of leaders in the field, described Brooklyn Bridge Park this way: “The plan allows for and encourages different experiences in the different spaces, from being wide open and being fully engaged with the people around you to intimate, forested places. It’s remarkable.”

The award also highlights Brooklyn Bridge Park because it’s a prominent example of how to transform abandoned post-industrial waterfronts into spaces for people and wildlife. These spaces litter cities and represent so much untapped potential.

Brooklyn Bridge Park VR / ASLA
Brooklyn Bridge Park VR / ASLA

Why Virtual Reality?

The communications world is increasingly image- and video-driven. With video, you can pack in even more information about a work of landscape architecture, much more than you can in simply a photo or text. With video, you can get a sense of the sight, sound, and “feel” of a place. You can see people interacting with the design, bringing it to life.

Virtual reality takes video to the next level. As you move your phone or VR headset, you control your experience in the landscape. It more closely mimics the experience of exploring a place in person. In part, it recreates that sense of discovery one gets in real life.

Why did ASLA make this VR film?

Virtual reality has proven to be a powerful tool for explaining how the places people love – like Brooklyn Bridge Park – are designed experiences. Virtual reality can educate the public about landscape design in a compelling way.

The video has multiple goals: promote the potential of virtual reality among the landscape architecture community, which totals approximately 25,000 design professionals in the U.S. and Canada; explain the incredible value of landscape architecture to the public; and demonstrate the ability of landscape architects to turn an unloved place like a cut-off, post-industrial waterfront into a beloved community park.

Why should landscape architects use VR?

Virtual Reality is a powerful tool for landscape architects, architects, planners, and developers – really anyone involved in designing our built and natural environments. In the example of Brooklyn Bridge Park: many will never have the opportunity to visit the park in person, but with our video, they can get a good sense of what’s it like to be there.

For landscape architecture firms, this is an excellent way to really show clients that a place they’ve designed works – that people enjoy hanging out there, that kids love playing there, that people are drawn to events there.

ASLA VR Film Credits

Producer: American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)
Production Company: DimensionGate, Toronto
Director: Ian Tuason
Director of Photography: Ian Tuason
Production Assistants: Ward Kamel and Idil Eryurekli
Narrator: Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, President and CEO, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc.
Post Production: Callum Wilkin Gillies

Thank you to Jamie Warren and Onika Selby at Brooklyn Bridge Park for making this all come together. At Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc, we appreciate the kind assistance of Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Hilary Archer, Jane Lee, and Lucy Mutz.

Parks Are a Critical Solution to Climate Change

PS 15 The Roberto Clemente School in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, a “state of the art green infrastructure playground” / Maddalena Polletta, The Trust for Public Land

Parks boost community resilience because they offer a place to develop deeper neighborhood connections. They improve community health by reducing stress, restoring cognition, and providing a place to exercise. Parks mitigate the urban heat island effect, improve air quality, and absorb carbon from the atmosphere. They support local biodiversity and can act as buffer zones for flooding or mudslides. Parks are both important social and environmental infrastructure.

To sum it up: “we need more parks if we want our cities to be more resilient to climate change,” said Joshua Alpert, director of special projects for C40, at an event organized by The Trust for Public Land and JBP Foundation during the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.

“We need public space if we want to know our neighbors,” explained Joshua Stanbro, with the city and county of Honolulu, Hawaii. Parks are the “platform for social interaction,” but if designed and built with the community, they can also help forge stronger community connections.

Those connections are more likely to happen in parks that communities actually want. So it’s important that “we meet communities where they are,” said Diane Regas, president and CEO of The Trust for Public Land.

In New York alone, The Trust just built their 200th green schoolyard in an effort to build social networks so these communities can then better fight for climate equity.

Regas said some one-third of the population of the US doesn’t have a park within a 10-minute walk. Through their innovative 10-minute walk campaign, The Trust and its partners aim to undo that inequity.

Brady Walkinshaw, CEO of Grist, said the campaign is the kind of clear, simple communication that is needed because it successfully distilled complex urban planning ideas into an easy-to-understand message people can get behind, like the $15-an-hour minimum wage movement.

Urban parks are also important because they provide the foundation of urban forests, which help cities both mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to a changing climate. According to Jad Daley, CEO of American Forests, urban forests absorb some 100 million tons of carbon each year, about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Trees found in these green areas can reduce energy use up to 7 percent because they provide wind blocks for homes in the winter and cooling in the summer.

In an effort to achieve equity, American Forests is now working with vulnerable urban populations to plant millions of trees. Daley said this work is more critical than ever because deaths from extreme heat are expected to increase ten fold by 2050.

Arturo Garcia-Costas, program officer for the environment with the New York Community Trust, said a more connective approach needs to be taken with green spaces in cities. He pointed to the Ramblas in Barcelona and the High Line in New York City as examples. “We need to think of the broader system and greater connectivity, with green space as the priority.”

Ramblas, Barcelona / Wikipedia

Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), said ubiquitous “pave the planet” approach to development hasn’t been “healthy or climate-smart.” In fact, the approach make communities even more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. To increase safety, communities must instead create built environment systems that work in concert with natural systems. This is because “we are never going to tame Mother Nature.”

As an example, she said there is a great opportunity to design parks — and cities more broadly — to act like natural sponges that absorb stormwater. The great additional benefit of this green infrastructural approach: “It’s a much healthier system.”

ASLA 2009 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou, Houston, Texas, SWA Group / Bill Tatham

But Somerville also called for better science and data-based models in order to optimize design interventions in cities. With more accurate data-based geographic models and maps, policymakers can understand where the worst urban heat islands are, the most flooding is, the areas most impacted by mudslides, and then create the most effective parks that solve those challenges. “The lack of modelling remains a key gap.”

In comments on the session, landscape architect Mia Lehrer, FASLA, CEO of Studio-MLA, noted that in dense cities, the only remaining spaces that can be turned into parks are brownfields. Remaking those contaminated spaces is a “complicated and expensive process” that requires expert landscape architects.

Adrian Benepe, Hon. ASLA, senior vice president at The Trust for Public Land and former head of NYC Parks and Recreation, agreed, arguing that “landscape architects are system thinkers” who can help communities maximize park benefits.

Lehrer, Alpert, Somerville, and Walkinshaw saw further densification as a critical future challenge for cities. Walkinshaw said: “densification is the cause of most fights in cities, as it brings up racial, civil rights, public space, and climate issues.”

Alpert believes green public space in the ultra-dense mega-cities of the near-future may end up being dis-aggregated into networks of not only parks but also rooftops and terraces, wherever space is available.

Designing for the Other Four Senses

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The Senses: Design Beyond Vision / Princeton Architectural Press

The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, a new book from designers and curators Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps, is a compelling survey of the emerging field of sensory design. The book accompanies an interactive exhibit of the same name by the authors on display at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum through October 28th. While The Senses is not quite the manifesto for multi-sensory design practice its authors claim it to be, the book captures the poetics and science of sensory design and in doing so conveys some useful lessons for landscape architects.

Sensory design’s historically-narrow application has broadened as our own understanding of the senses has gained sophistication. Add to that the potential of emerging technologies to create and augment sensory experiences, along with the urgent need for more inclusive design, and you have the swell in popular attention the field is currently experiencing.

It’s worthwhile to ask whether, as landscape architects, we are guilty of treating hearing, taste, scent, and touch as second-class senses. Put to any landscape architect that the senses other than sight are important and you’re likely get a nod of agreement. What isn’t as clear is whether this acknowledgment commonly manifests in our design work.

Sensory experience commands greater consideration in landscape architecture than most design fields, and so landscape architects are better attuned to their designs’ effect on the senses. But we often conceive of and deploy landscape architecture as a palliative to harsher environments than rich sensory environments in and of themselves. As to how we might improve and innovate in this regard, The Senses offers some inspiration.

The first step is to bring to sensory design the same level of critical thought brought to visual and spatial design. What are the qualities of an environment where all five senses have been weighted equally in the design process, not simply manufactured under “the tyranny of the eye”?

The Senses features an interesting case study in San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually impaired. There, light and space are maximized, materials are chosen for their acoustic properties over their appearance, and details such as tapered handrails and textured steps are integral elements, not tacked-on details.

© 2017 don fogg | all rights reserved
Stairwell, LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, 2015 / Photo by Don Fogg.  The Senses: Design Beyond Vision (c)2018 Princeton Architectural Press

One recurring practice among The Senses’ featured designers that has an application for landscape is layering. Layering allows for the creation of environments rich with hierarchy and nuance.

Snarkitecture’s undulating wallpaper, Topographies, is one example, as is the Rich Willing Brilliant Studio’s attitude towards lighting. According to these designers, sound, smell, light, flavors, and texture can be layered to form thresholds and barriers, ceilings and corridors. If this seems architectural, that’s intentional. Perfumer Christophe Laudamiel stresses the multi-dimensional quality scents take on when layered and allowed to develop volume. Laudamiel is a master of evoking landscapes with his scents, such as meadows dense with wildflowers and the Bosporus Strait.

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Topographies, 2017/ Photo courtesy of Calico Wallpaper. The Senses: Design Beyond Vision (c)2018 Princeton Architectural Press

If there’s one project in the book the offers a more grounded idea of how landscape architecture and sensory design can interface, it is Tactile City. Expanding on existing tactile paving systems, Tactile City illustrates how streetscapes can be designed to benefit the visually impaired. Highly-textured paving tiles can signal features of the environment to someone relying on a walking stick. Indications of street furniture, bus stops, or construction can be imprinted in the landscape. “Sensory design can shape the beauty and function of a place – and address dangers and obstacles,” the authors write.

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Tactile City, 2015 / Image courtesy of Theodore Kofman. The Senses: Design Beyond Vision (c)2018 Princeton Architectural Press

Much of the exhibition and book is concerned with new technologies: The Scent Player, emitting smells instead of music,  or a device that converts reverberations against the skin into dialogue for the deaf. These technologies, while not immediately translatable to landscape architecture, underscore the fluid nature of our senses. The authors do an excellent job of conveying how senses feed and play off of one another. Sights can trigger smells can trigger tastes, with past experience setting some of the rules for these exchanges.

Cyrano Onotes device
Scent Player, Cyrano, 2017 / Photo by Wayne Earl Chinnock. The Senses: Design Beyond Vision (c)2018 Princeton Architectural Press

Experience of the landscape should engage all of our senses. Sensory design is about maximizing that experience and making sure others of differing abilities can as well. The Senses is a worthwhile read for landscape architects wanting to pursue these goals.

PARK(ing) Day Showcases the Power of Public Space

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Happy Parking Day from ASLA! #aslapd18

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On Friday, September 21, landscape architects and designers around the world participated in the 14th annual PARK(ing) Day to demonstrate the power of public space. PARK(ing) Day helps the public see the difference a designed space, even one as small as a metered parking spot, can make in their community.

The Landscape Architecture Bureau (LAB) in Washington, D.C. gave passersby an opportunity to simply relax and read on a Friday afternoon.

The DLR Group in Sacramento, California, let people use the space to play some classic video games, if they worked for it.

OLIN in Philadelphia created a landscape made of paper for the public to immerse themselves in.

The Kansas State University Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects used their parklet to educate people about the benefits of trees.

Landscape designers at Quackenbush Architects in Columbia, South Carolina, demonstrated what exactly fits in a parking space other than a car.

ASLA’s members posted 424 times using our PARK(ing) Day hashtag, #ASLAPD18. View all of the posts on our tagboard.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (August 15 – 31)

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A colonnade of palms inside Rio de Janeiro’s botanical garden / Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket

A Guide to Rio de Janeiro’s Coastal Cool The New York Times, 8/17/18
“From historical gardens to feats of Modernist architecture, what to see and where to stay in the beloved Brazilian city.”

This New Park Is Designed for a Future of Flooded Cities Fast Company, 8/20/18
“Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn Centennial Park can hold a million gallons of rainwater to help control the city’s increasing floods.”

10 Urban Sanctuaries Well Worth a Visit The Santa Maria Times, 8/25/18
“A foray into the heart of a city can be made all the more memorable and enjoyable with a visit to a public park.”

Why Your Favorite Bench Might Be There to Thwart a Terrorist Attack The Washington Post, 8/27/18
“When landscape architects recently began redesigning a wide, red-brick sidewalk in Washington’s Chinatown, they initially ­focused on improving the storm-water runoff and making it easier for pedestrians to navigate safely.”

Atwater Beach Groundbreaking Signals Next Big Thing for Detroit Riverfront The Detroit Free Press, 8/27/18
“The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy broke ground Monday afternoon on Atwater Beach, the latest addition to the city’s waterfront attractions.”

Monarch Landing Designer Relishes Opportunity to See Community’s Growth The Chicago Tribune, 8/28/18
“Most people visiting or residing at Monarch Landing in Naperville see the beautiful senior living community for what it is now, thriving gardens, thriving residents and all.”

A Cost-Effective Way to Treat Depression: Greening Vacant Lots

Before: An empty lot in Philadelphia / JAMA Open Network
After: A Green lot in Philadelphia / JAMA Open Network

A tree, some grass, a low wooden fence, regular maintenance. With these basic elements, an unloved, vacant lot can be transformed from being a visual blight and drain on a community into a powerful booster of mental health.

According to a new study by five doctors at the University of Pennsylvania, residents of low-income communities in Philadelphia who saw their vacant lots greened by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society experienced “significant decreases” in feelings of depression and worthlessness. And this positive change happened for just $1,500 per lot.

For lead author Dr. Eugenia South and her co-authors, this is a clear indication that the physical environment impacts our mental health. And planning and design offers a cost-effective way to fight mental illness in light of the sky-rocketing costs of doctor and emergency room visits and drug prescriptions.

In many low-income communities, vacant and dilapidated spaces are “unavoidable conditions that residents encounter every day, making the very existence of these spaces a constant source of stress.” Furthermore, these neighborhoods with vacant lots, trash, and “lack of quality infrastructure such as sidewalks and parks, are associated with depression and are factors that that may explain the persistent prevalence of mental illness.”

Conversely, neighborhoods that feel cared for — that are well-maintained, free of trash and run-down lots, and offer access to green spaces — are associated with “improved mental health outcomes, including less depression, anxiety, and stress.”

This means that cleaning up empty lots in low-income communities can potentially buffer the negative mental impacts of living in a low-income neighborhood.

Some 541 vacant lots were studied in the trial. One third of these lots were greened; one third just had their trash cleaned up; and one third experienced no change. The researchers only included lots that were less than 5,500 square feet, had significant blight — “illegal dumping, abandoned cars, and/or unmanaged vegetation” — and been abandoned by their owners.

Lots in the study / JAMA Open Network

Each lot selected for greening underwent a “standard, reproducible process” that involved “removing trash and debris, grading the land, planting new grass and a small number of trees, installing a low wooden perimeter fence with openings, and performing regular maintenance.” Cleaned-up lots saw their their garbage removed; they were also mowed and given regular maintenance.

Some 342 people who lived in neighborhoods near these lots agreed to have their mental health assessed both before and after the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society intervened. After choosing an address closest to the lots, teams of researchers fanned out across Philly, selecting participants at random, who were given $25 to complete a survey that took 40 minutes on average.

“Participants were asked to indicated how often they felt nervous, hopeless, restless, depressed, that everything was an effort, and worthless using the following scale: all of the time, most of the time, more than half the time, less than half the time, some of the time, or no time.”

South and her co-authors contend that greening lots was associated with a “significant reduction in feeling depressed and worthless as well as a non-significant reduction in overall self-reported poor mental health.” The trash clean-up alone didn’t lead to any reduction in negative feelings.

In Philly, greening a lot cost just $1,500 and required around $180 in maintenance a year. In other cities and communities with significant amounts of blight, that amount would likely be a lot less.

Beyond the mental health gains, greening lots can increase “community cohesion, social capital, and collective efficacy.” Given the many associated benefits, greening lots in low-income communities is a no-brainer.

New Study: Technology Undermines the Restorative Benefits of Nature

Laptop user in a park / istockphoto

We experience “soft fascination” with nature when we sit on a park bench and let our mind wander, taking in the trees and flowers, noticing birds and squirrels, feeling the breeze. This gentle decompression in nature is actually critical to helping us restore our ability to pay attention. We need breaks where our minds can just go slack and subconsciously take in the complexity of the natural world. Researchers are still trying to figure out the ideal “dose” of this green medicine, but benefits have been seen with just 10 minutes.

New research argues those breaks in nature only help if we put down our laptops and other devices. A recent study published in Environment and Behavior contends that using laptops, smartphones, and other technologies while sitting on that park bench undoes all the good attention-boosting benefits of nature.

Attention is an important resource not to be wasted. We need the capacity to pay attention to make our way through our busy lives. According to the study’s authors — Bin Jiang, with the University of Hong Kong; Rose Schmillen, a landscape designer; and William C. Sullivan, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — “a person who cannot focus his or her attention is likely to miss important details and have trouble remembering details. Compared with someone who is not mentally fatigued, a person with low attention functioning is more likely to be irritable, have trouble with self-management, struggle to resist temptations, and miss subtle social cues. When a person is mentally fatigued, he or she is less effective in pursuing goals and interacting with others. A person with depleted attention is more likely to say or do things he/she might regret later, which can affect relationships, work performance, and even personal goals such as losing weight or saving money.”

In their experiment, Bin, Schmillen, and Sullivan set 81 participants (50 women and 31 men), aged 17 to 35, in a few environments to test their theory on how a laptop “substantially counteracts the attention enhancement effects of green spaces.”

After doing 10 minutes of taxing cognitive testing — 5 minutes of subtraction exercises and 5 minutes of memorization indoors — participants were asked to take a 15-minute break. But they were given four different types of breaks: participants either sat in a “barren” outdoor space or a green space filled with trees.

Examples of barren spaces where participants took a break / Environment and Behavior
Examples of green spaces where participants took a break / Environment and Behavior

Some were given a laptop and asked to use them for “non-work” related leisure activities, such as social media, news sites, YouTube, blogs, online games, or shopping. Those given a laptop were asked to “sit on a fixed chair or bench in the shade to maintain a comfortable temperature and to reduce screen glare.” Others didn’t get a laptop. After the break, their ability to pay attention was tested again.

The experiment found “the only condition that produced an increase of attentional functioning was a green setting in which the participants didn’t have a laptop.” The authors believe this confirms the attention-boosting benefits of nature are “undermined by the use of an electronic device.” In an email, Sullivan confirmed the effect of a smartphone or tablet would be “identical” to the laptop.

Top line indicates improvement in attention functioning after a break in a green space without a laptop / Environment and Behavior

For Sullivan and the other authors, this means policymakers, planners, landscape architects and designers need to ensure green spaces are close-by and easily accessible from dense environments, especially workplaces, educational institutions, and hospitals — places where people’s attention is constantly taxed and where nature’s restorative benefits are even more critical.

Landscape architects and designers also need to up their game and create green spaces that can divert our attention from our addictive devices.

Sullivan told me: “The findings here present a challenge for landscape architects. In the past, it was enough to design and build nature-rich cities — just by being in such places, people would get a range of health benefits. But with the ubiquitous use of mobile devices, one of the most important benefits of being in nature-rich urban space might be lost. The challenge is to create even more engaging landscapes — landscapes that encourage people to put their phones down and be in the moment.” Those attention-sustaining features could include “moving water, wildlife, fire, or other natural elements that move and change.”

Co-Designing with Kids

Blessed Sacrament playground tree planting / Craig Glover, London Free Press

Three case studies from an upcoming book on co-designing with children were presented at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) in Oklahoma City. An environmental designer, landscape architect, and landscape educator explained how kids — if properly motivated and trained — can lead planning and design processes. Working within a framework and with a motivated youth coordinator, kids of all ages can identify and solve design challenges.

Janet Loebach, an environmental designer based in Toronto, partnered with a group of mostly-immigrant kids at Blessed Sacrament school in London, Ontario, to create a new combined playground and garden. The school grounds were redesigned not only as a space for students and teachers but also as a park for the neighborhood.

The space is alongside a busy four-lane road that averages 30,000 cars a day, and where more than one car has plowed through the fence. Being so close to a busy arterial road is not only dangerous but also unhealthy for the kids — as exhaust fumes fill play spaces. With a $25,000 grant from the London Community Foundation, Loebach organized a project with students to create a green buffer of large trees for the new community space.

Over three months, a group comprised of 24 grade-8 students, aged 12-13 — that named themselves Green Direction — met for two hours a week over three months to create a design. They decided on “who’s doing what — the goals and processes. They were the primary researchers and designers.” Six groups of four students created designs, based in site measurements, inventory, and analysis; interviews with students and teachers; and activity and behavior mapping based on the age ranges of users.

The students created concept and bubble diagrams, scale drawings, and models; gave presentations and collected feedback; and undertook costing exercises. At the end of the process, Loebach synthesized the priority elements and refined the merged design.

Loebach said the process showed “youth benefit from authentic engagement and involvement in decision making around place-making. Kids can articulate needs and designs when they are given the proper tools.”

The resulting landscape had large shade trees, meandering paths, a pergola, and a vegetable garden. While used by all students, it has become especially useful for kids who are struggling, who need a “green time-out.” They are sent to water the garden for 15 minutes and benefit from the time in nature.

Rebecca Colbert, a landscape architect with MIG’s Denver office, explained how lottery funds in Colorado have been set aside for Great Outdoors Colorado, a program to preserve and protect natural resources and also improve children’s connection with nature. A $14 million grant program required applying communities to form diverse coalitions and undertake a collaborative planning process that is “youth-led or driven.” Initial planning grants of $75,000-100,000 led to implementation grants for the winners.

In Garfield county, Colorado — a struggling area an hour west of Vail with a “boom bust extraction economy” that includes the towns of Silt, Rifle, and New Castle — Colbert served as a youth engagement consultant with a coalition putting together a grant application. The team’s members included representatives from non-profits and state education, health, parks, and wildlife departments. A youth advisory council was formed, in which each high school student was paid a stipend of $1,000 over 9 months, all coordinated by an adult liaison.

Garfield county flattops / Colorado State University

The youth council undertook a multi-stage process, starting with team building, tours of places where children could better connect with nature, and outreach to other students. At libraries, they created a visioning process and mapped the barriers to accessing nature. They were creative about bringing other kids into the process: smaller children were asked to draw their favorite things in nature, and gamers at home were reached via an online survey in English and Spanish.

The process identified key goals for activity in nature, which included: team sports, cycling, walking and biking, nature play, camping, rock climbing, stand-up paddle boarding, archery, and horse-back riding. The youth group also found the obstacles preventing deeper engagement with these activities: “not having the right gear or know-how, or lack of access or funds.”

The youth council presented their recommended projects and programs to decision makers. The team ended up winning a $1.5 million grant, which has gone to an outdoor classroom featuring nature play, wilderness skills training, expeditions for kids along the Colorado River, and mentorship programs for outdoor jobs. Colbert said the experience for the youth council members was a “good learning experience — their voices were heard and they made an impact as citizens.”

Lastly, Patsy Eubanks Owens, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at University of California at Davis, explained how the Reach Youth Coalition, a group of 12-16 year-olds in Vacaville, California, came together to turn an abandoned railroad, which they had been using as a shortcut to get to school, into a safe, paved pathway for the community.

With financing from the Sierra Health Foundation, the group, assisted by a youth coordinator, started a campaign to improve the 3/4-mile Rocky Hill trail. “They were concerned that it was hard to navigate — it was so muddy they had to wear grocery bags on their feet to go to school. And it was unsafe — there were gang fights, and drug needles could be found near the homeless encampment.” Students traveling along the trail at all hours knew to go with a friend.

The coalition surveyed some 1,700 middle school students who use the trail, yielding short-term and long-term goals. According to Owens, a video produced by the coalition was critical to gaining support. “The video was a turning point. Before, the mayor didn’t even know the trail existed.” After the city council watched the video, they voted to allocate $75,000 to build a new trail.

In 2016, eight years after the coalition was formed, a new trail was finally dedicated. Neighbors and a church along the trail organized a clean-up, and new community gardens were planted. To date, some $230,000 was raised by the team, with in-kind support from neighbors and residents. Currently, only some areas are lit, but the entire length will be soon.

“Youth leadership changed the opinions of leaders. There is now a real pride in participation and place,” Owens said.