Healthy parks, healthy people – Understanding the human-nature relationship, Part 1


To realise the potential benefits to human health and wellbeing to be gained from interacting with nature, it is important to understand how and why humans relate to nature. The simplest explanation is that humans are part of nature, but more often than not, modern thinking views human beings as separate from, or even above nature, despite our obvious animal status. Although the concept of nature as a human construct is subject to debate and often leads to philosophical, ‘chicken and egg’ type arguments, these are not applicable here.

Generated from numerous disciplines exploring the human relationship with nature (including religion) are a number of theories to explain: why humans interact with nature the way they do; the effect nature has on the human psyche, spirit, and wellbeing; the effect that humans have on the biosphere (both positive and negative); and how this in turn effects human society (particularly human health and wellbeing). This section briefly examines some of these theories and reviews their application in research undertaken on some different population groups.


The Biophilia Hypothesis was developed by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson (Wilson, 1984) and has been expanded and debated by Wilson and numerous others (e.g. Gullone, 2000; Fawcett and Gullone, 2001; Takacs, 1996; Kellert, 1993; Kellert and Wilson, 1993; Wilson, 1993; Wilson, 1984). The Hypothesis is based on the assertion that early in human history there was an evolutionary advantage in knowing about the natural world, particularly information concerning plants and animals, and that this knowledge contributed to survival (Kellert, 1997). The essential aspect of biophilia, however, is that apart from knowledge, attraction and respect for nature also contributed to survival (Kellert, 1997). Kellert (1997) believes that an affiliation for nature addresses innate psychological needs such as intellectual capacity, emotional bonding, aesthetic attraction, creativity and imagination that are a product of our evolution and otherwise not easy to
satisfy (Kellert, 1997). It is believed by some that these innate psychological and neurological needs are mismatched with the results of technological progress (Suzuki, 1997; Glendinning, 1995; Lewis, 1996; Gullone, 2000). This notion is not new, and has been expressed by authors as early as 4,600 years ago (Benson, 1976). Advocates of biophilia believe that humans evolved in the company of other living organisms and in a matrix of conditions making human existence possible, and that we continue to rely intellectually, emotionally, physically, and spiritually on our affiliations with nature (Kellert, 1997; Suzuki, 1997; Gullone, 2000; Kellert, 1993). According to the theory therefore, biophilia is: inherent; part of the human
species’ evolutionary heritage; associated with increased chances of urvival via genetic fitness; likely to increase the possibility for achieving meaning in life and personal fulfilment; and a self-interested basis for the care and conservation of nature (especially biodiversity) (Kellert and Wilson, 1993).

Although still in the process of being explored, the biophilia hypothesis is not a romanticised idealisation of nature (Kellert and Wilson, 1993). In fact, multidisciplinary teams of researchers have formed over the past decade or two to support and explore this notion further (Takacs, 1996) and it is now gaining wider acceptance in the scientific community. Suzuki (1997) states that biophilia provides us with a conceptual framework through which human behaviour can be examined, and that it appears to be scientifically verifiable that human beings have a profound need for an intimate bond with the natural world. Evidence for biophilia is slowly building, as shown in some of research findings included in this review.

Wilson (1984) and others (Gullone, 2000; Kellert, 1997) believe that modern
city-dwelling humans still possess this innate tendency to associate with nature (although, they admit, it is more evident in some people than others) and that in modern times it has the potential to give meaning to human life and development, and result in greater health and wellbeing. As Wilson (1993) states, human history began hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago with the evolution of the genus Homo and for more than 99 percent of our history we have lived totally involved with other organisms. Only in the very recent part of human history has the delusion arisen that people can flourish apart from the rest of the living world (Kellert, 1997; Wilson, 1992). Unfortunately, this could prove to be to our detriment. Satisfying our affinity with the natural world, however, may be an effective way to reverse this trend and enhance health (as well as being cheaper and freer of side effects than medication) (Frumkin, 2001). If so, then medicine and other professions will need to articulate a broad vision of environmental health, one that encompasses many disciplines (Frumkin, 2001) and adopts holistic or ecological approach to health.

The modern environmental crisis has been viewed as symptomatic fundamental rupture of the human emotional and spiritual relationship with the natural world (Kellert and Wilson, 1993). Biophilia urges researchers to address the question of what will happen to the human psyche when the natural environment, such a defining part of human evolutionary experience, diminishes or disappears.

Human ecology

The fact that there may be a biophilic basis for the adaptive responses humans have for certain natural stimuli is being used to explain both positive/approach (biophilic) responses and negative/avoidance (biophobic) responses that people have to nature (Ulrich, 1993). It is likely that a predisposition in early humans for biophilic or biophobic responses to certain natural elements and settings contributed to chance of survival (genetic fitness) (Ulrich, 1993). Examples of this include the virtually universal attraction humans have for the round faces and large eyes of infant animals (including humans), and the widespread fear of snakes and spiders (Kellert and Wilson, 1993; Ulrich, 1993).

In animals, choice of habitat exerts a powerful influence on survival and
reproductive success, so behavioural mechanisms involved in habitat selection in humans would have been under strong selection pressure for millennia (Orians, 1986). In all organisms habitat selection presumably involves emotional responses to key features of the environment that produce ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ feelings leading to settling or rejection in a particular place (Orians, 1986). Parsons (1991) suggests that the process of habitat selection is also associated with triggering certain physiological processes that influence the immune system and affect physical wellbeing. These physiological responses are concerned with the release of hormones, which can impair or enhance immunity and cardiovascular function (Parsons, 1991). A positive response to an environmental feature presumably also has a positive effect on physiological state, and a negative response has a negative effect. If this is so, the ability of a habitat to evoke such emotional states should be positively associated with survival and reproductive success of an organism in that habitat (Orians, 1986).

Modern urban environments differ considerably from the natural habitats that have been the home of humans for thousands of years. As humans have lived in cities for relatively few generations it is most likely that adaptation to this environment has not yet occurred, and humans are still dictated by habitat preferences formed by their ancestry (Kellert, 1997; Kellert and Wilson, 1993; Heerwagen and Orians, 1993).

Parsons (1991) considers the stress associated with urban living a direct result of the unsuitability of urban environments as optimum habitat for humans. The features of urban living known to induce stress include crowding, noise, air pollution, and traffic. As mentioned, some authors believe that time spent solely in urban environments is detrimental to human health and wellbeing (Stilgoe, 2001). Although they may not elicit a full-blown stress response once acclimatised to, these features could produce slight elevations in stress hormones which compromise immunocompetence and cardiovascular functioning, resulting in deleterious health effects over time (Rohde and Kendle, 1994; Parsons, 1991).


Stephen Boyden has merged human culture with natural history (or the study of nature, society, and history) in the field of ‘biohistory’, which reflects the broad sequence of events in the history of the biosphere and of human civilisation, from the beginning of life to the present day (Boyden, 1999; Boyden, 1992). Among other aspects of evolution and human history, biohistory pays particular attention to the changing patterns of interplay between cultural and biophysical systems, or the interplay between culture and nature (Boyden, 1992). Biohistory considers human culture as an ecological force, due to its ability to shape the natural world and alter ecological processes. Boyden (1999) asserts that it is impossible to overstate the ecological and health potential of human beliefs, knowledge, and ideas.

Biohistory aims to improve understanding of the human situation and the human place in the natural world by examining interactions between biological and cultural processes (Boyden, 1992). Three important aspects identified by Boyden (1992) are:
• Humans are totally dependent for sustenance, health and wellbeing, and enjoyment of life on the biosphere, and all products of culture are negligible if biologically determined health requirements of the biosphere and of human bodies are not met;
• Every human situation from individuals to societies involves continual
interplay between biological and cultural elements, the effects of which
influence human health and wellbeing, and/or the health of ecosystems on
which humans depend;
• Human culture has influenced biological processes on which humans
depend, and of which they are a part, and although some of these influences are beneficial, others are detrimental and threaten the survival of the human species.

Aspects of culture that have detrimental effects on the environment and/or on human health and wellbeing are referred to as ‘cultural maladaptations’ (Boyden, 1999; 2001). Some of the central assumptions of Western culture that result in cultural arrangements and human activities that are ecologically unsustainable are examples of cultural maladaptations. A more specific example is the current pattern of unsustainable resource/energy use and waste generation and its detrimental effects on the environment and human health. Although cultural maladaptations have been present throughout the history of human culture and civilisation, an essential difference between the past and the present is in the scale of the consequences (Boyden, 1999). The consequences of current cultural maladaptations for the biosphere and human health will potentially
be catastrophic due to the degree and extent that humans now dominate
the environment. Boyden (1999) believes that in order to divert catastrophe, significant cultural reform in the dominant cultures of global society is required: nature once again should be placed at the centre of human culture. In order to achieve this reform, Boyden (1992) states that biohistory should become part of the educational curriculum, and should be used as a framework for integrative research on human situations (particularly health and wellbeing) to achieve wise policy formulation and decision-making. But as well as including biohistory in formal education, Boyden (2001 p. 113) also highlighted the need for broader community education, through ‘places for people who share enthusiasm and respect for the natural…and who care about the health and well-being of human-
kind and of the rest of the living world’ to gather. Such ‘biocentres’ will, according to Boyden (2001 p. 114) ‘provide a new framework for constructive collaboration between community groups, scientific bodies, businesses, schools and other organizations’. In Boyden’s view, ‘the attainment of a truly sustainable, healthy, equitable and peaceful society’ is only achievable if a biohistorical perspective becomes a central feature of cultures (Boyden, 2001 p. 115).


Healthy parks, healthy people
The health benefits of contact with nature in a park context
A review of relevant literature
2nd edition
March 2008
School of Health and Social Development Faculty of Health, Medicine, Nursing and Behavioural Sciences
Deakin University
Burwood, Melbourne

© Deakin University and Parks Victoria 2008
Authors Dr. Cecily Maller Associate Professor Mardie Townsend Associate Professor Lawrence St Leger Dr Claire Henderson-Wilson Ms Anita Pryor Ms Lauren Prosser Dr Megan Moore

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