Rediscovering Nature in Everyday Settings: Or How to Create Healthy Environments and Healthy People
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- Maller, C.J., Henderson-Wilson, C. & Townsend, M. EcoHealth (2009) 6: 553. doi:10.1007/s10393-010-0282-5
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It is estimated that half of the world’s population now live in urban environments. Urban living necessitates a removal from nature, yet evidence indicates that contact with nature is beneficial for human health. In fact, everyday urban places, such as where people live, study, and work, provide opportunities to bring nature back into cities to contribute to positive, healthy environments for people and to foster the human–nature connection. The inclusion of more nature in cities could have additional environmental benefits, such as habitat provision and improving the environmental performance of built environments. In the context of climate change, outcomes such as these assume further importance. This article explores how common urban places can foster links between people and nature, and generate positive health and well-being outcomes. We achieve this by exploring nature in the everyday settings of schools and residential housing.
Keywordsurban environmentsnaturehealth and well-beingschoolschildrenhigh-rise developments
The human relationship with nature is complex and occurs at multiple levels in a variety of contexts. However, in contrast to our nomadic and agrarian history, half of the world’s population now lives in urban environments (Haines et al., 2007). Urban living necessitates removal from nature, yet contact with nature is popularly believed to be beneficial for human health on multiple dimensions. In this article, we loosely define “nature” as animals and plants and their habitats (e.g., native and domesticated animal species, forests, gardens, water bodies), and consider any context where multiple species interact with members of their own and other species to be an ecosystem. In cities, this includes humans and resident native and nonnative species of animals, plants, and insects. According to Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, there is an innate connection between people and other living organisms that has emotional, cognitive, aesthetic, and spiritual elements (Wilson, 1993). Indeed, accumulating evidence indicates that access to, and contact with, various forms of nature does have multiple positive effects on human health, particularly in urban environments (Maller et al., 2006; Neilsen and Hansen, 2007). As was believed historically, this finding implies that cities should ensure human communities have adequate access to nature. Aside from large areas designated as parkland and wilderness, however, evidence suggests small-scale or diffuse encounters with nature, such as a view from a window, are equally important (see Kuo, 2001). One way to enhance the frequency of such encounters is to maximize the “nature” potential of everyday urban settings, where people live, work, and play. By drawing on findings from two Australian research projects, this article explores how nature in everyday settings can promote human health and well-being.
In Australia, approximately 64% of the population (13.4 million people) live in a capital city (ABS, 2009). Our research was conducted in Melbourne and Sydney, the two largest cities in Australia, each housing approximately 4 million residents (ABS, 2008). Within these cities, two everyday settings were chosen for study: schools in Melbourne and high-rise residential developments (with eight or more stories) in Melbourne and Sydney. The first study explored adult perceptions of activities involving hands-on contact with nature at 12 primary schools within 20 km of the center of Melbourne. Being an exploratory study, a qualitative approach using semi-structured interviews was the primary method, supplemented by a small survey to collect preliminary data. Interviews were requested with the principal and a teacher from each school, resulting in 23 transcripts overall. To complement this data, a further seven interviews were conducted with key contacts from the environmental education industry who were involved in nature-based activities for children. Iterative qualitative data analysis techniques, including question coding, content analysis, and rich point analysis, were used to categorize, compare, and interpret the data.
The second study investigated links between inner city high-rise living, access to nature, and health and well-being in 30 high-rise developments within 10 km of each city. As it, too, was exploratory, a similar approach to the first study was adopted. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 30 high-rise residents who varied in gender, age, socioeconomic status, tenure (homeowner or tenant), geographic location, and proximity to natural environments. The data were thematically analyzed to develop key themes/factors impacting on residents’ access to nature and quality of life.
Children’s relationship to nature and the effects of contact with nature on their health and well-being is relatively unstudied compared to adults (Kellert, 2005). Yet ecological theory suggests contact with nature is important for children’s mental, emotional, and social health because it encourages imagination and creativity, cognitive and intellectual development, and enhances social relationships (Heerwagen and Orians, 2002). Educational theory suggests additional benefits, including facilitating children’s understanding of their place in the world, and developing cognitive, emotional, and spiritual connections to the social and biophysical environments around them (Green, 2004). However, it appears children’s understanding of, and connection to, nature is mediated by adults to whom they are exposed (Kellert, 2002), suggesting such adult figures play a key role in children’s relationship with the natural world.
Due to the diminishing availability of natural areas in children’s local neighborhoods in Western society, and the diminished time available for children to access what remains of these spaces (Kellert, 2005), most opportunities for children to experience nature are now likely to occur at school. For example, when engaging in before- and after-school play, during recess and lunch breaks, and during class time as part of a lesson.
Activities involving contact with nature in the 12 study schools included: vegetable, flowering, and indigenous gardens; habitat conservation or regeneration; creating wetlands; having animals in the school or other opportunities for animal care (e.g., native animals, poultry); and environmental monitoring of streams, wetlands, and parks adjacent to the school. Children engaged in the activities as part of their learning, usually in connection with science or social studies. However, they could access some activity sites at will during recess, lunch, and before and after school. Adults involved in the activities considered the main objective to be to connect children with nature, although multiple health and well-being outcomes were also observed. Reported benefits were consistent with prior research and included (but were not limited to): skills in caring and nurturing (Dyment, 2005); improved self-confidence and self-esteem (Somerset et al., 2005); sensory engagement (Palmer, 2006; Louv, 2008) and the experience of freedom and creativity (Kylin, 2003; Dyment, 2005); improved social skills (Volk and Cheak, 2003); engagement with school, and the accommodation of children with different learning styles and abilities (Volk and Cheak, 2003; Dyment, 2005). Other benefits arose from having an improved physical environment, greater knowledge of ecosystem processes and nature’s cycles (i.e., birth and death, symbiosis), and practical knowledge of how to care for plants and animals (Capra, 1999).
Further, two distinct types of activities involving hands-on contact with nature were identified: unstructured and structured activities. Unstructured activities were those experiences children had alone in nature, or with a small group of other children, that were not directed by adults, whereas activities which were about problem-solving, perceived as structured, were shared with other children and were often directed by adults. The different activities were perceived to have different benefits: Unstructured activities promote exploration and discovery of their environment, can give children a sense of place in the world, and foster a connection with nature; structured activities provide children with a meaningful learning experience and can connect them with their local community (for further detail, see Maller, 2009).
Drawing on data from the Melbourne study and available literature, incorporation of nature into children’s everyday settings appears to have significant outcomes for health and well-being, in particular mental health. Additional empirical research measuring improvements in children’s health and well-being would add further weight to these findings.
While impacts of high-rise housing on health and well-being are well established (Evans et al., 2003; Lawrence, 2006), impacts of access to nature on inner city high-rise residents’ quality of life are relatively unknown. With high-density housing increasing in Melbourne and Sydney, the presence of urban green space is becoming ever more necessary in alleviating the stresses of city life (Henderson-Wilson, 2009; Henderson-Wilson and Townsend, 2007). However, the construction of high-density, high-rise developments is reducing green space and leaving many urban areas devoid of plant and animal life.
Churchman et al. (1990) suggest there are a number of facets of urban green space that contribute to well-being: a behavioral facet, where open space serves as a place to engage in a number of activities, particularly recreational activities; a psychological facet, which reduces the effects of perceived housing density and crowding; an ecological facet, which reduces air and noise pollution; and an aesthetic facet, where green space enhances the senses and offers contrast to the built environment, as well as exposure to natural phenomena.
In the high-rise developments studied, residents were found to prefer natural scenery such as trees, parks, or bodies of water, rather than images of the built form, noting that the views of nature evoked feelings of relaxation and resulted in self-perceptions of higher well-being. Other findings about access to nature indicated that those who have access to urban parks and gardens within a short distance of their home (namely a 5-min walk or a short trip on public transport) are able to participate in more physical and social activities than those with less access to nature. Some residents had access to community and rooftop gardens. The inclusion of useable and safely accessible gardens, such as these, were found to foster a sense of community and provide residents with a range of nutritional, physical, social, and psychological benefits. This finding is consistent with other research (e.g., Kingsley et al., 2009). Moreover, such facilities can provide opportunities for immobile residents to enjoy the benefits of nearby nature and, further, can provide apartment-dwelling pet owners with an outdoor area for their companion animal, facilitating social capital (Wood et al., 2007). Outcomes also indicated that tenure influences residential satisfaction and opportunities for contact with natural environments. Residents who owned their apartment and also owned a property near a natural environment were commonly found to feel more satisfied with inner city living, as they could access nature on weekends. Overall, residents who lived in developments that contained natural elements were typically more satisfied and felt their quality of life was better than those who had limited or very little access to nature.
The findings are consistent with the biophilia hypothesis and suggest that, for high-rise residents, access to natural environments in everyday settings is important for health and well-being. The incorporation of nature, particularly gardens, into densely populated residential areas could be used to provide these communities with a range of physical, social, and mental health benefits. Furthermore, it has been argued elsewhere that inclusion of nature in residential areas can contribute to urban sustainability, for example, by reducing the urban heat-island effect among other potential benefits (Low et al., 2005). Future research could utilize a larger sample size and compare residents from different housing forms. In addition, residents from low-rise, medium-rise, and mixed-use housing developments could be studied to discover if the same range of factors impact on their health and well-being and access to nature. And further, residents from different countries could be compared to determine the importance of access to nature in different cultures.
Consistent with similar research on the health benefits of contact with nature, the two studies described indicate that the experience of nature in everyday settings is important to the health and well-being of adults and children. We argue that opportunities for daily contact with nature, in formal and informal settings such as schools and housing, will become increasingly important in cities as urbanization increases. Further, with the environmental performance of built environments assuming greater importance in the context of climate change, the inclusion of nature in urban ecosystems also has the potential to improve the environmental “scorecard” of cities. The nexus of cities, nature, and health, however, is relatively under-researched in disciplines falling under the umbrella of “ecohealth.” Perhaps this is because cities are not thought to contain intact or “natural” ecosystems, and are hence not considered worth studying. We suggest that the impetus of climate change requires researchers and practitioners alike from public health, ecology, urban planning, and other relevant disciplines to collectively reexamine how to improve the quality of, and access to, nature in cities which we believe will have multiple co-benefits for both public and ecosystem health.