By Britton Study
Rapid urbanization paired with an expanding population have led to a decreasing natural world. Because of recent technological advances, people are spending less time interacting with the natural world and more time in front of screens. Richard Louv called this detachment Nature Deficit Disorder, and it’s having adverse effects on our health. Diagnoses of anxiety, depression, ADHD and obesity are increasing in frequency. However, urbanization is key to sustaining a large population of humans while protecting the natural world. To combat Nature Deficit Disorder, techniques such as forest bathing can be utilized. Phytoncides are volatile compounds released by trees that boost our immune system and contain anti-microbial properties. We are intrinsically bound to the natural world and must incorporate it into our cities’ future planning. Rooftop gardens, parks and other green spaces are key to maintaining a healthy human population and creating sustainable habitats.
KEYWORDS: Nature Deficit Disorder, Forest Bathing, Phytoncides, Urban Mind, Urban Biodiversity
Starting in the 18th century, rapid urbanization and an expanding human population have accelerated the disappearance of the natural world. Adults between the ages of 18 and 35 have been referred to as the Net Generation 1. A push for technological incorporation into the classroom resulted in the use of television, creative streaming and training modules or assessment software 1. The world children are now born into is remarkably different from what we were designed for by centuries of evolution. Cities are an efficient habitat that can sustain large populations while currently only occupying 3% of the land on Earth. However, we are deeply rooted to nature and must incorporate it into urban locations.
Journalist Richard Louv was the first to emphasize the importance of nature, both psychologically and physiologically, to humans. He coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder”, or NDD, to which Eco Psychologists have taken a liking to for describing how our nature deficit lifestyles affect us. NDD is not an official medical diagnosis, as the ICD-10 nor the DSM-5 recognize it. Nonetheless, it has been documented that rises in childhood obesity, Attention Deficit Disorder, and depression are linked to what Louv considered NDD 2. Additionally, long-standing studies have demonstrated an affiliation between inaccessibility to the natural world, such as parks, with higher crime rates, depression and other diseases 2.
This paper will attempt to uncover the benefits of immersing oneself in nature from a psychological and physiological perspective. Techniques such as forest bathing and other outdoor recreation have numerous benefits. These benefits highlight the importance of incorporating the natural world into cities to promote sustainable, eco-minded environments.
Forest bathing is a therapy that originated in Japan. To “forest bathe” a person must simply engage with the surroundings in an immersive way, utilizing their 5 main senses. Forest bathing doesn’t have to occur in a rural area. A study in China concluded that forest bathing increased anti-anxiety scores among college students by an average of 18% in urban forests 3. The anti-anxiety scores were gathered by survey questions related to urban lifestyles such as financial state, exam-pass pressure and love-affair relationship 3. Though urban forests had less richness or biodiversity than rural forests, the effects were similar for both 3. Therefore, forest bathing has psychological benefits that can lower anxiety levels and keep individuals in a happier state of mind under the pressures of extended social interaction within cities.
Another study determined that expanded space perception was potentially correlated to nature exposure. Space perception is one’s ability to become attentive of their own position relative to other objects in their local environment. Then understand how each object relates to another. Consequently, expanded space perception lead to less impulsive decision making 4. This could relate to the mental clarity many people express feeling in the natural world. Urban centers are densely compacted areas that can be confusing and stress invoking. By incorporating the natural world into these areas, it could help the residents decompress and organize their thoughts in a setting that has proven to be effective.
Wilderness camps provide more structure to the idea of forest bathing but have similar positive effects on the psyches of young adults. Campers attending the National Youth Science Camp in the US Radio Quiet Zone took part in a pilot study. Researchers attempted to measure the overall emotional, social and spiritual well-being prior to and after the 4-week program. Campers and staff all saw increases in their nature measures, which included exposer, skill, knowledge, sense of place and connection with nature 5. Campers also experienced increases in holistic measures which included physical activity, relaxation, perceived stress, resilience, relationship with others and transcendence 5. In recorded interviews, campers noted that the natural word augmented the development of friendships, via group interactions where individual egos were put aside for the greater good of the group 5. Thus, interaction with nature not only promotes psychological health, but also includes sociological benefits. This is key to maintaining a healthy state of mind, especially in urban environments where human interaction and compromise is inescapable.
In addition to psychological benefits of soaking in the natural world, there are biochemical benefits for the body. Phytoncides, or wood essential oils, are highly volatile organic compounds released by trees into the air. Phytoncides were investigated regarding their effect on the immune system’s natural killer cells, or NK cells. NK cells kill tumor or virus-infected cells by triggering apoptosis or an exocytosis pathway 6. In vitro, NK cell activity significantly increased in the presence of 4 different phytoncides 6. Another study demonstrated that phytoncides decreased stress feedback in rats known to have exaggerated stress responses to triggers 7. Phytoncides have also exhibited antimicrobial properties when paired with the antibiotics 8. With a growing concern related to the density of cities and human health, phytoncides could give current medicines a boost in protecting urban dwellers.
INCORPORATION OF THE NATURAL WORLD INTO CITIES VIA GARDENS
There are several ways to incorporate nature into cities, and roof top gardens are an excellent method. They also provide a hands-on experience for local food production. Another study in China explored how an agricultural landscape could be created for children who are “diagnosed” with NDD. It was determined that farming, which is unfamiliar to urban children who mainly gather food at markets, helped rehabilitate children’s attention, exercise small muscles, and integrate all 5 senses toward a task 9. This is indicative that roof top gardens or other urban green spaces could promote the well-being of children. Roof top gardens also interconnect centers of biodiversity in cities through green corridors 10. Green corridors allow insects and other organisms to pollinate the gardens and navigate them as an entire ecosystem.
Green spaces on rooftops also lessen the “Heat Island” effect cities experience. A study done on 38 cities in the United States concluded that urbanization triggers a differential heating process compared to vegetated landscapes due to impervious surfaces 11. Impervious surfaces refer to roads, sidewalks and other artificial structures that cover the soil. The highest temperature difference due to the heat island effect was seen in urban areas replacing forests (9 degrees Celsius), then grasslands (6.3 degrees Celsius) and finally savannas or tropical grasslands (5.0 degrees Celsius)11. These green spaces would benefit urban residents as described in the paragraph above due to the maintenance they require. Citizens will also benefit from the cooling effect the gardens have, which would make being outside in the city more enjoyable.
INCORPORATION OF THE NATURAL WORLD INTO CITIES VIA GREEN SPACES
Japanese gardens are constructed so that they occupy a small space but can be accessed or viewed from a living area. While they do not bear large amounts of fruits or vegetables like standard gardens, they are a valuable green space. A study concluded that when viewing a Japanese garden through a window, heart rate decreased 12. However, when one immersed themselves in the garden, their heart rate dropped even further 12. It was determined that scent was the main factor which led to the decrease in beats per minute 12. This could be the phytoncides being released by the plant and absorbed into the body. Another study found that green spaces are a platform where cohesion among communities occurs. It was determined that residents living adjacent to a vegetated common space had strong social ties to their neighbors compared to those without one13. Therefore, additions of the natural world to preexisting urban spaces can turn them into more favorable areas for residents to congregate. Figure 1 shows how the natural world can be incorporated into an already existing infrastructure. Vines extend up the wall and turn this area into a green space. Figures 2 and 3 demonstrate the tendency of people to congregate in green spaces. The two photographs were taken at the Pittsburgh Convention center, where guests gathered outside on a rooftop with grass to escape the crowded indoors.
An app called Urban Mind was launched to collect timely data regarding mental well-being in response to natural features within an urban environment 14. This study found that a positive response to natural features would carry over in subsequent responses throughout the day 14. This suggests that humans do not need to live completely within the natural world to feel its benefits. We can continue to urbanize, knowing that small incorporations of the natural world have lasting effects.
Nature nourishes us in ways we still don’t understand. Unfortunately, NDD is not an official diagnosis, which prevents people from accessing treatment they need. Further research to strengthen the legitimacy of NDD could lead to its addition in the DSM-5 or ICD-10. Incorporation of the natural world into our cities has been found to decrease anxiety related to stressors of the modern era. Outdoor recreation has strong associations with environmentally conscious behavior, or one’s inclination to preserve a part of the natural world they utilize15. When people have intimate contact with nature, they are inclined to care and nourish it in return. These intimate experiences may be the gathering of groups, families or small local communities for recreational activity. Future city planning should integrate green spaces into their blueprints. Research on maximizing efficiency of roof top gardens and food production per square foot would aid in this planning. New farming techniques such as perennial polyculture and irrigation systems could also maximize crop yield. Older, well-established cities can use their obsolete infrastructures as opportunity to integrate nature. Rail corridors, abandoned utility corridors, back alleys and even roads are being transformed across America 16. Figure 4 shows how Pittsburgh planted trees in unused space between roads and along the sidewalks. Urbanization is unavoidable, thus fusing the natural world with cities is crucial for human well-being in the coming decades.
Figure 1: Picture taken in downtown Pittsburgh that demonstrates the incorporation of vegetation onto the walls of buildings.
Figure 2 and 3: Picture taken at convention center rooftop in Pittsburgh, PA.
Figure 4: Downtown Pittsburgh demonstrating the incorporation of nature into unused spaces.
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1, 2, 9 and 16 are secondary sources
Cite this article:
Study, B. (2019). Benefits of Incorporating the Natural World into Cities. D.U. Quark, Contest Submissions.