Green Cities – Part I: Good Mental Health & Functionality

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brooklyn-botanic-garden-new-yorI was sent a truly fascinating article about how interaction with nature can help alleviate mental fatigue by relaxing and restoring the mind. It was published by the College of the Environment, University of Washington. Because of the length and in-depth analysis of the article I have decided to add it to my blog over the next couple of months. Anyone interested in how important nature is in our lives and our mental well being should take the time to read it.

The Project support was provided by the national Urban and Community Forestry program of the USDA Forest Service, State and Private Forestry. Summary prepared by Kathleen Wolf, Ph.D. and Katrina Flora, December 26, 2010. You can read it in its entireity at http://depts.washington.edu/hhwb/Thm_Mental.html.

Mental Health & Function

Encounters with nearby nature help alleviate mental fatigue by relaxing and restoring the mind. Within built environments parks and green spaces are settings for cognitive respite, as they encourage social interaction and de-stressing through exercise or conversation, and provide calming settings. Having quality landscaping and vegetation in and around the places where people work and study is a good investment. Both visual access and being within green space helps to restore the mind’s ability to focus. This can improve job and school performance, and help alleviate mental stress and illness.

Fast Facts

  • The experience of nature helps to restore the mind from the mental fatigue of work or studies, contributing to improved work performance and satisfaction
  • Urban nature, when provided as parks and walkways and incorporated into building design, provides calming and inspiring environments and encourages learning, inquisitiveness, and alertness.
  • Green spaces provide necessary places and opportunities for physical activity. Exercise improves cognitive function, learning, and memory.
  • Outdoor activities can help alleviate symptoms of Alzheimers, dementia, stress, and depression, and improve cognitive function in those recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • Contact with nature helps children to develop cognitive, emotional, and behavioral connections to their nearby social and biophysical environments. Nature experiences are important for encouraging imagination and creativity, cognitive and intellectual development, and social relationships.
  • Symptoms of ADD in children can be reduced through activity in green settings, thus “green time” can act as an effective supplement to traditional medicinal and behavioral treatments

The Brain and the Environment

The brain, complex and vulnerable, is the only organ that undergoes substantial maturation after birth. This process is shaped in part by response to stimuli in our surroundings (including both negative and positive conditions), and continues throughout our lives. Substantial research shows that natural scenes evoke positive emotions, facilitate cognitive functioning, and promote recovery from mental fatigue for people who are in good mental health. The experience of nature can also provide respite for those who experience short-term and chronic mental illness.

Mental Fatigue Recovery

Nature: An Urban Respite

The constant stimuli of city life can be mentally exhausting, and life in the city can actually dull our thinking.3 In navigating the outdoor environment, one must continually monitor traffic and pedestrian flow while constantly focusing on where one is going and the means to get there. Constant response to even such low-level stimuli cannot be maintained indefinitely. A few minutes in a crowded city setting can cause the brain to suffer memory loss and reduced self-control. Even brief glimpses of natural elements improve brain performance by providing a cognitive break from the complex demands of urban life.4

Attention Fatigue and Recovery

Our immediate environment can prompt both negative and positive subconscious effects. A glance at an object that even remotely resembles a snake, for instance, may initiate an instantaneous fear response. Similarly, the presence of plants subconsciously and beneficially impact how the brain responds even when we do not focus attention on such surroundings.

In today’s lifestyles and work, we must focus our attention on critical information or tasks. Maintaining that focus by screening out distractions overloads our capacity for conscious attention.5 Yet, exposure to settings that are visually interesting (having “high fascination”) have been found to aid directed attention recovery.6 Comparing memory retention in people viewing low versus high fascination scenes in built and natural environments, respectively, people viewing natural environments performed significantly better (see Figure 1).6 So, in the case of offices and schools, where one must focus on tasks, the addition of natural features could significantly improve attention and content retention rates.

To be continued …

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