Our relationship with nature is deeply intertwined with both the human conscious and subconscious minds. Recently there have been concerted attempts to empirically examine this relationship, especially in the disciplines of biology, ecology, psychology and psychiatry.
Research in 2016 showed that when people exercise they release a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) which acts as a reset switch. It is why people often feel at ease and things are clearer after exercising. The following image shows that after a 20-minute walk there is increased brain activity of a kind which is generally associated with happiness – an interesting verification of the synergy between mental and physical health.
This growing global awareness, actually a revival, as will be understood from Narrative (1) in this series, of the importance of green space and nature to cohesive healthy societies. This relationship is symbiotic, but both aspects of the relationship are under threat. In much of Asia the principles of the Healthy Parks Healthy People concept are inherent in many of the cultural and spiritual practices but as ‘western’ lifestyles intrude there is a danger that the influence will be lost.
Today’s rates of urbanisation have no precedent in history. By 2045, more than two-thirds of the world’s population will live in towns and cities, with most of that increase happening in Asia and Africa. As cities expand and new cities are born, the way that urban populations, planners and innovators interact with nature will directly shape global prospects for health, well-being and sustainable development. For the first time ever, more than half of the world’s population already live in cities and can be ‘divorced’ from much of nature – in consequence they are less likely to have contact with nature and hence to benefit from and to appreciate the value of open space and of biodiversity and the importance of its conservation.
The stress that humans perceive may be ubiquitous, but its remedies are not. Appreciation of time spent in nature for recreation and restoration has deep historical and cultural roots throughout the world. The eddies and swirls of seasonal winds, the fractal branching of trees, the low murmur of streams and the Fibonacci structure of flower petals all provide conscious and unconscious cues that settle the addled mind. The ordered complexity found in natural environments is key to the mental stimulation they offer and, indeed, their enduring allure.
In Japan, strands of historical silviculture and more recent scientific inquiry – along with traditions of painting, poetry, and landscape design – are visible in the modern practice of shinrin-yoku, ‘forest bathing’, whereby walking in natural landscapes is thought to improve health. Today, shinrin-yoku is practised at 52 Forest Therapy Bases, with as many as 100 ultimately envisioned across the archipelago.
In Western media, the practice of shinrin-yoku is either grouped with a suite of alternative and complementary medical practices deemed ‘natural’ (‘The Natural Way to Calm Down’) or inserted awkwardly into a lexicon of conventional health consultation (‘Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning’); but neither characterisation grasps its context accurately.
In the 20th century, Japan’s need for forest products was increasingly (and unsustainably) outsourced to its Asian neighbors and beyond. Efforts to invigorate interest in well-managed native stock led the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute to conduct research in the late 1970s and 1980s into aromatic compounds called phytoncides, essential oils that are emitted by unvarnished wood. These compounds are produced by live trees as defensive or signalling agents but are also present in resin, and have been associated with improvements to mood, immune function, and blood pressure. Mature aromatic sugi and hinoki forests are among those considered rich in bioactive compounds.
Many of our own cherished childhood memories relate to nature. Building a ‘tree house’, climbing trees, splashing in muddy puddles, fishing with a stick, family picnics – the list is endless. Now societal fears mean children are more often kept indoors, ever-reducing gardens too have become more formal with less play space with the inevitable stifling of the creativity, imagination, stimulation and activity that previous generations enjoyed from natural environments, especially those immediately accessible to the home. Water restrictions in many cities have discouraged gardeners and technological games dominate leisure time.
Our technological age has encouraged sedentary lifestyles at both work and leisure – a particular concern with the younger generation increasingly spending more time indoors, never better expressed than in the title of Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, in which he quotes a fourth-grader as “I like to play indoors better ‘cause that’s where the electrical outlets are”!
This situation is evolving at the very time that human populations, at least in the West, are increasingly suffering from non-communicable diseases like obesity, mental health problems, breakdowns in community cohesion, and of course the loneliness and boredom triggered by the COVID-19 epidemic. Interestingly, though many playgrounds were at first closed, local parks and open spaces became ‘newly discovered’ for people to unwind from their periods of required isolation and as a break from their ‘working from home’ routines.
It is entirely plausible that, if working from home becomes popular – even for just one day a week – people will spend some of the time that they used to spend in commuting by heading out to a local park, bike way or creekside, or joining locally grounded community groups. The message for urban planners and decision-makers is to ensure that new suburbs are designed to secure generous areas of open space, public parkland and public meeting places, with high-order connectivity to other parks and landscape features nearby.