Human life relies wholly and unequivocally on the natural world; on the quality of the air we breathe, our access to clean water and the availability of nutritious food. But beyond just survival, connection with the natural world enriches our existence. The elements, flora and fauna literally colour our lives with inspiration, joy, serenity, and connection. Scientific studies continue to verify what many of us feel instinctively; that we feel better when we connect with natural ecosystems and landscapes. For individuals the benefits are myriad; physiological, mental, and social. These benefits extend to our communities too; connections to plants, trees and wildlife throughout our towns and cities can foster culture and creativity. When we connect meaningfully with nature our lives are fuller and richer; our brains and bodies literally change. So, it becomes necessary to ask, is it possible that we might create opportunities for urban individuals and our communities for these crucial interactions to occur often and with ease? Can our physical built environments and infrastructure be designed specifically to foster and encourage this? And, in doing so, how might we give back and restore the critically needed balance in our relationship with the natural world?
To begin are some highlights from the research I’ve come across into the beneficial effects of a natural connection for people from a health and wellness perspective. While the research is remarkable it is somewhat unsurprising. Trees and plants clean and purify the air, producing oxygen and removing dangerous pollutants and toxins such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, formaldehyde, and even airborne mould. Beyond helping us to breathe better, the benefits of proximity to trees and plants extends to our brains, hearts, and immune systems. Recent studies into the impact of trees on our health and immunity took a group of participants ‘forest bathing’ and examined the effects. Forest bathing involves spending a short but leisurely time in a tree-filled landscape. The results were outstanding. Besides smelling pleasant, the aromatic compounds released by trees activated and increased immunity in the group. Cortisol, a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands, was reduced as was blood pressure and pulse rates. Activity of participants’ sympathetic nervous systems (related to stress) declined while parasympathetic nervous system activity (related to relaxation) surged. Another study found people living in close proximity to trees had better ‘amygdala integrity’ meaning, a brain structure better able to handle stressors. These studies demonstrate not only that short amounts of time spent in nature offer our bodies and minds a break from our often-frenzied urban lifestyles, it can physiologically equip us better to handle the stress and sensory overload of a modern existence.
Do we want to be calmer, happier individuals, in more peaceful communities, with increased health and vitality? Yes! Can we all move into the forest and live in Tolkein-esque smials? Possibly not! So is there another solution? During the 1980s ‘Biophilia’ emerged as a concept in architectural circles. Biophilia recognised the tendency of humans to be attracted to nature and sought to emulate natural processes and structures in our built environments. Search ‘biophilic architecture’ into any online search engine and the results will return sketches of buildings and cities bathed in natural light and softened with abundance of plant and tree species. There is harmony between the built and natural world, and not only to the benefit of human inhabitants.
While this concept was given a name during the 1980s, numerous figures and groups throughout history have recognised and understood the power of connections to the natural world, and their positive impact on human health and well-being. Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, reformed healthcare and hospital design in 19th century Britain; citing adequate ventilation and exposure to natural light as critical to patient recovery. Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician regarded as the father of medicine, in 400 BCE spent his working life attempting to understand the relationship between disease and environmental factors. He noted aspect and orientation of buildings and exposure to wind as having influence on the health and well-being of populations. Indigenous Australian cultures, among the earth’s oldest, describe a strong connection to land not only critical to their health but as the very link between all aspects of existence; spirituality, culture, language, family, and identity.
After two centuries of post-colonial industrialisation and technological development we have only relatively recently come to recognise and accept that the quality of our physical environments directly impact our health and improve our lives. Furthermore, the success of our physical environments can be assessed on their basic environmental factors; quality of air and ventilation, access to natural light, and proximity to, or vistas looking toward, plants and trees. Armed with this knowledge, we can create urban environments which embrace biophilic design to better serve ourselves and our communities; using principles that are tried and tested, and in some instances centuries old. But in our 2021 context, where our planet’s biodiversity is under critical threat and we are experiencing a rapidly changing climate with extreme weather events of increasing frequency and severity, is this enough? Both our scientific research and human instinct and intuition recognise how much the quality of our lives and wellbeing depend on our connections to the natural world. Should we not be aiming, as individuals and communities, not only to use biophilic principles to design our building and cities improving our own existence, but to achieve a result beneficial both to us and the natural world? Symbiosis can be described as the interaction of two different organisms, living in close proximity, to the advantage of both. Two individuals, species, or ecosystems that each benefit from the presence of the other. Can we not use our remarkable knowledge of technology, engineering, architecture and design to plan and build cities that will enhance the quality of our own lives, but to create much needed opportunity to heal and restore our incredible – and incredibly fragile – natural world? Not only for the safety and security of our own species, but also out of a deep care and respect for the planet and ecosystems that literally give us life?