The cognitive load related to city living can wear a person's brain by too much stimulation, which is thought to weaken some functions such as self-control, and perhaps even contribute to higher rates of violence. Now on the bright side, there's also a lot of what we call urban advantage, says Dr. Aldi in his study, "When we live in cities there is a much richer environment, also better healthcare, better education, a better standard of living. All these are protective factors." So not everything is bad news, in fact exposure to nature seems to offer a variety of beneficial effects to city dwellers, from improving mood and memory, directed attention abilities, reducing stress, and overall improved wellbeing- this could possibly enable us to enjoy the best of two worlds.
World's rapid urbanisation brings significant changes in our standards of living, lifestyles, social behaviour and health (Kumaresan, 2010). Now, more than 50% world's population lives in cities and in 2050, it will be surpass 70% according to UN projections.
While urban living continues to offer many opportunities, as more access to better health care, today’s urban environments concentrate health risks and introduce more hazards for our wellbeing. One of these hazards is magnified stress caused by urban life dynamics. City dwellers must deal with the stimulus overload, constant change, crowding, noise, pollution, transportation, heavy volume of information, etc.
For some years now, city living has been linked to different mental illnesses, i.e. A study by the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, found city dwellers' brains, compared with people who live in the countryside, seem not to handle stress so well; another study leaded by Dr. Jaap Peen in the Netherlands found that living in a city roughly doubles the risk of schizophrenia; and at the same time, urban living was found to raise the risk of anxiety disorders and mood disorders by 21% and 39% respectively.
Awareness of these hazards for health motivated the World Health Organisation (WHO) to include on April 7th -World's Health day- the recognition of the effects urbanisation on our collective health globally and on every individual. The goal of WHO was to draw attention to governments, international organisations businesses and civil society to put health in the heart of urban policy- and it sure drew our attention!
We realise the multiple demands into urban dwellers' life that require processing and adjustment. In the search to relief stress, we draw on entertainment, recreation, therapists, pharmaceuticals, seminars, books and so much more. In this search to heal stress, the impact of nature’s qualities on health, which are not only spiritual and emotional, but physical and neurological, seem underestimated. In this sense, Dr. Judith Heerwagen details elemental features of nature that convey feelings of safety, opportunity, connection, and pleasure in our environment. A wide range of references suggest design of our current habitats can confer psychological benefits and promote healing at the neurological level in ways we are just beginning to understand (Kellert et al, 2008). Furthermore, psychoneuroimmunology, the study of connections between psychological states and the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems, tells us that “mind-body interactions are so ubiquitous that it may no longer be possible to refer to body and mind as separate entities” (Lerner 1994).
In other words, our physical health, safety and welfare profoundly affects our emotional and mental health, including our ability to form relationships, to conduct productive work, and to enjoy recreation.
Are we able to design public places that elicit feelings of security and connection?
Nature is beneficial to all, regardless of age, gender, race, or ethnicity and it should be available to all urban dwellers, not just those who can afford to live on the edges of parks and open spaces. Connection to nature on a daily basis reinforces the values of respect and care for the environment that are necessities for sustaining our environment and daily lives.This is not to say, all nature is equally attractive or beneficial. Spaces with dead and dying plants and trees signal habitat depletion should be largely avoided. However, small spots of nature — a flower pot, tree, or a small garden — can help relaxing, feeling better and delighting. The role that nature plays in health and healing becomes even more critical for people working long days in windowless offices, for those living in city neighbourhoods without access to green spaces, for children in city schools, or those in institutional settings such as nursing homes. That is the real story of our connection to nature — it has many faces and many ways to create positive experiences in our homes, offices, backyards, or common spaces.
We are unique in the way we can actively participate in creating conditions for our own health through the design of our environments everyday, in our homes, our buildings, neighbourhoods, and cities at a global scale. Thus, innovative, nature inspired design with natural elements at its core is a key approach for us to enjoy a better, happier living.
WHO, Urbanisation and Health, http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/88/4/10-010410/en/
Restorative Commons, USDA, https://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/gtr/gtr_nrs-p-39r.pdf