Tag Archives: Dementia

Green Cities – Part III: Technology, Parks & Landscape Design

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Weingart Center Garden
Weingart Center Garden

Over the last two months, in Parts I and II of this series, we have looked at how nature, and in particular “Green Cities”  impact not only our health and well-being but how they can positively contribute to a whole range of intellectual, emotional and developmental issues.

Part I focused on how interaction with nature can help alleviate mental fatigue and relax and restore the mind. It also presented compelling documentation on the importance of nature in child development.

Part II demonstrated how the out of doors and bringing nature into the work environment can positively affect workers’ performance. It also describes how nature can positively impact children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and individuals suffering from Alzheimers and Dementia.

Weingart Center Garden
Weingart Center Garden

Part III, and the last of the series, looks at how we can go about achieving what has been described in Parts I and II and what roles technology, parks and landscape design play in making this happen. As an example of my own work in this area, I have included information, photographs and links to the Weingart Center Garden here in Los Angeles, which I designed and believe incorporates and exemplifies the underlying premise of this series:  we all have a deep, significant and perhaps even a genetic need to to be a part of and interact with nature.

Published by the College of the Environment, University of Washington, the project’s 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 entirety at http://depts.washington.edu/hhwb/Thm_Mental.html.

Can Technological Nature Be Effective

The question has been asked, “Couldn’t we simply substitute aspects of the natural world with technological depictions of nature?” Can technology provide an adequate substitute in places where the natural world is some distance away?

When comparing subjects’ reactions in windowless offices with and without plasma TV “windows” showing natural scenes, participants preferred the offices with plasma-display windows and noted increased psychological well-being and cognitive functioning as a result of this connection to the natural world. In another study comparing viewing formats, outdoor views through glass windows were more restorative than blank walls, but plasma windows were no more restorative than blank walls to the subjects’ sense of well-being. Subjects’ heart rates were lower in offices with the glass windows than in those with plasma windows and blank walls.

It seems that artificially represented nature is not an effective substitute for directly perceived nature as it does not provide equivalent benefits and positive experiences. Such technological representations could be useful to some degree in situations where it is difficult to incorporate “real” nature, as in space shuttles, submarines, or other extreme environments where there is an unavoidable disconnect from the natural world.

Nature in the Community

Weingart Center Garden
Weingart Center Garden

Green Space for Physical Activity

Play and exercise are an important part of children’s and adults’ development and brain function. As children, play can help develop cognitive thinking and reasoning abilities. Later in life, exercise likewise helps increase and maintain the brain’s cognitive capacity.

Researchers have found that exercise boosts the growth of new nerve cells and improves learning and memory in adult mice: newly formed nerve cells were concentrated in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is key in memory formation, spatial learning, and conscious recall of facts, episodes, and unique events.

Urban green spaces encourage exercise and are a more restorative environment than indoor settings, with a greater positive effect on mental health. Additionally, urban green spaces offer a free, accessible, public environment in which to exercise and play to those who cannot afford a private gym membership.

Weingart-2
Weingart Center Garden

A neighborhood than incorporates easily accessible green spaces into its design may also improve social cohesion and interaction. As a result, the mental health of individuals may also remain positive due to a decreased chance of depression and feelings of isolation and increased self-esteem. Effective social support networks have been found to restore feelings of personal control and self-esteem by buffering the effects of stress and poor health.

Green spaces, such as community gardens or even the shade of a large tree, encourage social contact by serving as informal meeting places and sites for group and shared activities. Green spaces can serve as a sort of ecotherapy, as marginalized people can find empowerment, respite from stresses, and personal involvement in environmental stewardship. Green spaces in close proximity to homes encourage exercise, which can improve mental health. As described earlier, studies indicate that having views of nearby nature and living within green spaces can improve worker productivity, reduce stress, improve school performance, and lessen the symptoms of ADD.

Specifically concerning the elderly, social interaction is important as less loneliness is correlated with lower mortality rates, depression, and cognitive impairment. Additionally, in a study of elderly populations that prefer natural over built environments, there is a positive correlation between familiarity of the environment and restorativeness. To promote this, the elderly require easily accessible spaces due to their more limited mobility, so having parks and green spaces in close proximity to their neighborhoods or care centers is especially important.

Landscape Design for Mental Health and Function

Weingart Center Garden
Weingart Center Garden

Park Design

Parks are often scattered about cities, and many cities have too few parks. Based on decades of research findings, parks should be managed as systems, not just for the usual purposes of beauty and recreation, but also to help citizens function at their best. The National Parks and Recreation Association recommends that there be park space within 2 miles of every residence (with ¼- to ½-mile distances optimal for walkability) and that a city’s park system provide 5 to 8 acres of park space for every 1,000 residents.

Planting design within a park is also important. The “savannah hypothesis” argues that people prefer open landscapes with scattered trees, similar to African landscapes in which humans evolved. However, this theory has been recently challenged by evidence showing that the psychological benefits of green space are positively correlated with the diversity of its plant life. People who spent time in a park with greater plant species richness scored higher on various measures of psychological well-being than those subjects in less biodiverse parks.

Weingart Center Garden
Weingart Center Garden

Building/Infrastructure Design

Planters, gardens, green roofs, and other features can be incorporated into building design to address mental health and cognitive function. For example, the soft rhythmic movements of a trees or grass in a light breeze or the light and shade created by cumulus clouds, called Heraclitean motion, are movement patterns that are associated with safety and tranquility, aiding the development of a calm, stable mental state; lighting or space design that mimics Heraclitean motion could be incorporated into building design to create calm, peaceful areas that aid patients’ recovery or improve workers’ or students’ productivity. Bright daylight supports circadian rhythms, enhances mood, promotes neurological health, and affects alertness; increasing the use of natural light and reducing dependence on electric lighting can also significantly improve mental health and function.

Design can also encourage learning and exploration by creating spaces that are not immediately interpreted but allow discovery through sensory exploration. Effective architectural design is not easy to achieve: built objects and spaces that are too complex at first glance can become daunting, overwhelming, and too difficult to understand, while those that are easily scanned do not encourage interaction. If the built environment simulates the layered complexity of ecosystems, a person’s sensory systems will be engaged to explore and learn about the built object or space, which encourages cognitive function through a high level of visual fascination and mystery.

Weingart Center Garden

A Little Bit Of Country On Skid Row

In May of 2010 I began designing and eventually building the Weingart Center Garden. The Garden is adjacent to the Weingart Center, in the heart of the skid-row section of downtown Los Angeles. I wrote about this experience in one of my first newsletters entitled, “A Little Bit of Country on Skid Row.” That newsletter detailed my experiences and became the basis for an article I wrote for Worldscape, a Chinese publication, in both English and Chinese, that focuses on global landscape design.

The Worldscape editors requested an article describing one of my projects and I thought the design and construction of the Center’s garden was ideal. It demonstrated how a public/private partnership (the Weingart Center, AmeriCorps and me) can make a major contribution to one of the worst neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Here is a link to a PDF of that article: Worldscape-Weingart and a video documenting  the Garden’s construction is available here: Weingart-Construction.

The Weingart Center Garden – A Testimonial

The Garden that Garden of Eva designed and constructed for the Weingart Center, with the assistance of AmeriCorps, is a beautiful, comfortable and extremely functional outdoor living space for our clients, guests and community. Eva provided both the technical understanding of our needs and the vision to make the best use of the space. It provides a much-needed extension to our facility and it is continually used for meetings, training and fund-raising events, as well as barbecues for our staff, clients, guests and the community.

This small park provides refuge, relief and is a pleasant contrast to Skid Row and the city’s streets, sidewalks, large business complexes and housing developments. When you enter, the feeling you get is like walking into a country garden filled with beautiful flowers, trees, plants and a water fountain. We couldn’t be happier with the outcome and Eva’s continuing maintenance of our Garden.

Maurice Ochoa, Vice President – Facilities Services
Weingart Center for the Homeless

 

Green Cities – Part II: Cognitive Function & Mental Illness

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Last month, in Part I of this series, I introduced you to a fascinating article about how interaction with nature can help alleviate mental fatigue and relax and restore the mind.

nature experiences are important for child development
nature experiences are important for child development

Part II of this study deals with how interaction with the out of doors and how brining nature into the work environment can positively impact workers performance. It will also present how a person’s response to nature can positively impact children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and individuals suffering from Alzheimers and Dementia.

I have always believed that humans have a deep and perhaps genetic need to interact with nature, which, I’m sure, is why I love what I do. This study demonstrates quite clearly how important that connection is to our physical and mental well being.

Published by the College of the Environment, University of Washington, the project’s 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 entirety at http://depts.washington.edu/hhwb/Thm_Mental.html.

Cognitive Function

Workplace

Office workers may spend entire days indoors, and many decorate their workspaces with plants or pictures of natural settings to compensate for lack of a window view. In one study, people in windowless workspaces introduced twice as many nature elements to their work area as those who had window views of natural areas.

a green office is a healthy and productive one
a green office is a healthy and productive one

Office workers report that plants make for more attractive, pleasant, and healthy work environments, but what impact do plants and nature views have on work performance? Studies show improved employee morale, decreased absenteeism, and increased worker efficiency result from such workplace enhancements. Having plants within view of workstations decreases both illness incidence, and the amount of self-reported sick leave. One study found that workers with workstation views that included green elements were more satisfied at work and had more patience, less frustration, increased enthusiasm for work, and fewer health problems. Not having nature views or indoor plants are associated with higher levels of tension and anxiety in office workers.

College Settings

green is an aid to learning and cognition
green is an aid to learning and cognition

Learning, like tasks at work, requires focused, direct attention and high-level cognitive functioning. When plants were added to a college computer lab, the study participants were more productive (with 12% quicker reaction times on tested computer tasks) and showed less stress—though there was no difference in number of errors made on the test. Additionally, participants reported feeling more attentive and better able to concentrate in the presence of plants. In other studies, participants performed better on creative tasks in rooms having foliage plants, versus those without, and the authors conclude that nature may provide inspiration and a source of stimulation for creativity. College students with more natural views from their dorm windows scored higher on tests of capacity to direct attention (CDA) and rated themselves as able to function more effectively. In another study of college students, those who participated in a nature walk performed higher on a subsequent CDA test than those who went on an urban walk or relaxed in a comfortable room with magazines and light music prior to the test.

Children

nature experience are important for child development
nature experiences are important for child development

In recent times, children have less opportunity to be outdoors, in terms of both time and space. Some schools provide nature experiences as part of a class, recess, or special activity, as they recognize the potentially significant affects on learning and mental health.

Educational theory suggests that contact with nature facilitates children’s development of cognitive, emotional, and spiritual connections to social and biophysical environments around them. Ecological theory also suggests that contact with nature is important for children’s mental, emotional, and social health because imagination and creativity, cognitive and intellectual development, and social relationships are encouraged in outdoor activity, all of which improve the child’s mental health and function.

Nature can provide both background and objects for play and learning. Among older children, exposure to nature encourages exploration and building activities, which can improve problem-solving abilities, ability to respond to changing contexts, as well as participation in group decision-making. Younger children often use outdoor settings having plants, stones, and sticks as props for imaginative play, which is key to social and cognitive development. One study of children’s play found that a cluster of shrubs was the most popular place to play on an elementary schoolyard because it could be transformed into many imaginary places: a house, spaceship, etc.

Mental Illness and Nature Response

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)

many hospitals have healing gardens to serve patients and staff
many hospitals have healing gardens to serve patients and staffheali

Over 2 million children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), a condition that has detrimental effects on social, cognitive, and psychological growth. Studies show that childhood ADD symptoms can be reduced through activities in green settings and that “green time” may be an important supplement to established drug-based and behavioral treatments. In one study, the greenness of a child’s home did not significantly affect ADD symptom severity, but greenness of play setting was related to a reduction of symptom severity. Children who played in windowless indoor settings had significantly more severe symptoms than those who played in grassy, outdoor spaces with or without trees.

In another study, children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) performed better on an objective concentration test after exposure to a relatively natural urban setting as compared to a less natural urban setting. Children with ADD can benefit from spending more time in green settings on a daily basis, and during attention demanding activities (like school and homework). Providing nature experiences in the school day and class environment is important for all children, and particularly so for those with ADD.

Alzheimers and Dementia

Nature experiences provide mental health benefits for the elderly as well, including Alzheimer’s patients. Alzheimers is a type of dementia that causes memory impairment, intellectual decline, temporal and spatial disorientation, impaired ability to communicate and make logical decisions, and decreased tolerance to high and moderate levels of stimulation. Certain environments can provide prosthetic support for dementia patients to compensate for their reduced cognitive capabilities.

For example, spaces that have dead-ends or are crowded can increase frustration and anxiety in Alzheimer’s-diagnosed residents. Supportive outdoor spaces include these design features: looped pathways; tree groves or sites to act as landmarks for orientation; non-toxic plants; even, well-lit paths with handrails; seating areas with the suggestion of privacy; and use of low-key fragrances and colors to soothe, rather than negatively stimulate, the patient.

Studies have found that nature experiences can be of particular benefit to dementia patients. Exposure to gardens can improve quality of life and function of dementia patients by reducing negative behaviors up to 19%. Those patients who have access to gardens that are designed to positively stimulate the senses and promote positive memories and emotions are less likely to express negative reactions and fits of anger. After gardening activities, dementia and stroke patients exhibited improved mobility and dexterity, increased confidence, and improved social skills. Better sleep patterns, improved hormone balance, and decreased agitation and aggressive behavior have all been observed in dementia patients in association with contact with nature and the outdoors.

Cognition and Illness

Clinical reports have noted the loss of concentration and distractibility in patients experiencing serious illness. Studies have tested the correlation between stress and cognitive function under various conditions in women diagnosed with breast cancer. The impairment of CDA has been observed to set in before the start of a cancer treatment, suggesting that attentional fatigue has an early onset and is a result of the diagnosis itself. This is likely due to the mentally demanding and stressful nature of diagnostic tests and treatment planning. Participation in activities and/or interacting with natural environments was shown to ameliorate and help stave off mental fatigue both before and after breast cancer treatment or surgery.

Stress Relief

In addition to physiological symptoms, stress can lead to depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, exhaustion, and fatigue syndromes. Stress can occur at any time in life; however, such responses are especially prominent at later age due to physical, psychological, and social changes—for example, in response to chronic disease, disability, death of loved ones, or financial hardship. Stress can also negatively affect people’s perceptions of their well-being, including a poor perception of their own mental health. Physical activity has been linked to improvements in mental health and stress; many studies connect urban park use to decreased stress levels and improved moods. In one study, the longer participants stayed in a park, the less stress they exhibited. More than 100 studies have shown that relaxation and stress reduction are significant benefits associated with spending time in green areas.

Depression

Depression also occurs at any age and can be helped through improved social connections (to decrease the feeling of isolation) and exercise, both of which are promoted by having nearby green outdoor spaces. In one study, 71% of people found a reduction in depression after going on an outdoor walk versus a 45% reduction by those who went on an indoor walk. Another study investigated major depression disorder (MDD) and found that an exercise program can be just as effective as antidepressants in reducing depression among patients. The value of green spaces in encouraging exercise is relevant to treating depression symptoms.

To be continued …