Colin Ellard Ph.D.

Mind Wandering

All That Glitters Is Not Green

How can urban environments without greenspace make us feel good?

Posted Oct 18, 2012

The fact that exposure to green spaces is good for our brains and our bodies is hardly news these days.  There is solid research showing that everything from a view of a potted plant to a walk through the woods can improve your mood, boost your thinking skills, and even lengthen your life.  This research is critical because it provides us with reminders of the importance of finding the time to get outside and enjoy nature.  In fact, at a meeting of the Healing Cities Institute that I attended a couple of years ago, one of the ideas on the table was that these kinds of experiences were so important that health care practitioners ought to be prescribing planned visits to natural spaces with the same care as (or perhaps as a substitute for) prescriptions for mood-altering drugs taken for depression or medications given to children to treat learning disabilities

Studies showing the clear beneficial effects of exposure to nature on so many different aspects of our behavior have also become an important tool that can be used by urban advocacy groups and urban planners to promote the importance of the inclusion of oases of green in cities.  As we see a continued acceleration of the trend towards urban densification, and, in particular, new emphases on the importance of considering the developing minds of children in cities, a complete understanding of how and where to expend our precious economic resources to make cities work for all will become increasingly important.

But in spite of all of this healthy growth in our understanding of the deep impact of nature on mind, I sometimes worry about the risks of a naïve kind of Pollyannaism suggesting that it's easy to build great cities by knocking down buildings to put up parks.  Life is not so simple.  Other than provide opportunities for restoration of our psyches, there are a million other things that our cities have to do for us in order to sustain life, such as to provide us with safe environments and employment.  Taking care of those kinds of needs isn’t incompatible with providing green areas in cities, but it does mean that there has to be a balancing of needs, and there does have to be very careful scientific scrutiny of how exactly to deploy our resources to maximize benefit.  In architecture, we now have a set of standards (the LEED standards) that are used to encourage environmental sustainability.  We have some great ideas about what kinds of materials and building practices are most likely to produce low-impact structures that do as much as possible to mitigate the negative environmental effects of city environments.  But what about psychological sustainability in urban environments?  How do we do that?

In my laboratory, we’ve spent a lot of time asking some of these basic questions using virtual reality.  Although it might sound a bit odd to bring to bear a room full of computers and other high-tech instruments to understand why getting back to nature might be good for us, the big advantage is that in a laboratory simulation we can control every feature of what an observer sees, and so we can begin to pull apart what aspects of a scene produce the most effective dose of restorative nature.  I can’t share our most exciting findings with you yet because they’re not published, but, like a few others, we are finding that there are some very interesting visual properties buried deep in scenes of nature that we think may be responsible for some of the beneficial effects that we know nature produces.

So what’s next?  Well, one of the questions that I’m asked most commonly when I give talks about this work is the one that I alluded to earlier:  it’s all well and good to show that if you immerse someone in a fantastic rainforest or a jungle (simulated or otherwise), they will show nice changes in their brains and their bodies.  But given that we usually can’t build a rainforest or a jungle in the middle of a dense city, what else can we do?  Is it possible that there are other ways to promote healing restoration in urban settings?  These questions make perfect sense, and all the more so because many of us can recall urban experiences that may not have involved any natural scenery at all, but nevertheless felt psychologically restorative.  For me, one of the most vivid of such experiences took place during a visit to Beijing.  I was in the city for a conference, but I took advantage of a free day to take a long and unplanned walk.  I passed through Tiananmen Square and entered a very busy commercial area just south of the square (this was prior to the extensive gentrification that took place in this area prior to the 2008 Olympics).  The streets were like an insurrection against the quiet, geometric order of Tiananmen, filled with throngs of people and astonishing colour and movement.  As I walked, with no particular purpose in mind, I became fascinated by the play of sight and sound and the density of human activity.  I could feel the buoyancy in the atmosphere, the lively commerce of transactions between residents and visitors, and I felt elevated, aroused, and happy.  My senses were sharpened and I felt almost intoxicated with joy.  Every second of that experience was etched so sharply in memory that even now as I recount it I can hear the sounds and remember the facial expressions and gestures of some of the people that I saw there.  I didn’t have lab instruments on hand to measure how my body was responding to the experience, but I know without doubt that the hour spent on those streets was as mood-altering and restorative as any walk through the woods could have been.

What’s next for us in our laboratory is to see if we can somehow bottle some of that magic to arrive at any of the principles that help make positive experiences in the vibrant and crowded urban milieu.  Based on the work we’ve already done, we can make some guesses about some of the things that might matter.  The same kinds of sensory elements that affect our minds in nature can certainly be put into play in the built environment – visual shapes and textures, for example.  Other elements, such as the manner in which the shapes and designs of spaces affect human movement, or the manner in which the history and traditions of a place affect its “look and feel” are likely to be more ephemeral and they may resist our virtual reality microscope.  This is why, in addition to building crisp, clinical simulations of environments in our laboratory, we need to wade out into the mess itself, look around, and listen to what people have to say about their places and spaces. 

We’ve already begun some of that work in the form of a series of field experiments conducted in collaboration with the BMW-Guggenheim laboratory – a traveling urban think/experiment tank that has generously supported our experiments in New York and Berlin, and which will be setting up shop in Mumbai in December, and those experiments have already yielded some surprising insights (and I expect Mumbai to be a mind-blower…).  One of our most intriguing findings so far is the suggestion that how people are affected by the physical design of an urban environment may very much depend on their experience and history with a setting.  Although this doesn’t sound so surprising (and it’s one of the reasons why tourists can have such a wildly different ‘take’ on a setting from locals), it does suggest that the kinds of experiments we are doing have some hope of being able to tease apart such interesting interactions. 

For reasons having to do with experimental design, most experiments in environmental psychology present participants with entirely novel settings that they couldn’t have seen before (to “control” for the effects of experience).  Though there are valid reasons for doing this, our early findings suggest that such an approach may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  Understanding how a rich urban scene like a market street in Beijing, a busy pedestrian area in New York’s Lower East Side, or a happy lane of cafes teeming with young families in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg may all offer their own unique types of restorative experiences will be an important key to unraveling the many ways that a city filled with all the colours of the rainbow may provide us with happy green experiences.

Follow me on Twitter.