Healthy parks, healthy people – Principal health outcomes

Below is a summary of the main benefits to the health and wellbeing for
individuals and communities that arise from contact with nature. The benefits are summarised into the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s seven dimensions of holistic health (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 1998), including: 1) biological/mental wellbeing; 2) social/community wellbeing; 3) economic wellbeing; 4) environmental wellbeing; 5) life satisfaction; 6) spiritual/existential wellbeing; and 7) ‘other characteristics valued by humans’. As the components of health are interrelated, there is some overlap.

1 Biological and mental wellbeing

• Contact with nature provides a sense of wellbeing and positively influences immunity and cardiovascular function;
• Contact with nature reduces the magnitude of the physiological response to stress and enhances the ability to cope with, and recover from, stressful episodes;
• Some positive physiological effects of viewing nature include reduction of heart rate, muscle tension, blood pressure, and skin conductance;
• Viewing or touching a pet or animals reduces stress, decreases blood pressure and heart rate;
• Views of nature improve psychological health, particularly emotional and cognitive;
• Natural surroundings assist cognitive functioning in children (including
reducing the symptoms of attention deficit disorder);
• Views of nature improve performance in attention demanding tasks and can restore concentration/attention;
• Nature and parks promote healing in patients suffering from severe trauma, cancer, depression, anxiety, and other life-altering afflictions;
• Pet ownership can reduce the risk factors for heart disease (systolic blood pressure, plasma cholesterol, plasma triglycerides) independently of lifestyle and other health factors;
• Views of nature reduce self-reports of illnesses, such as headaches and
digestive disorders, in people who live or work in confined, indoor spaces
(such as offices and prisons);
• Nurturing living organisms may have distinct beneficial physiological (and emotional) responses that improve overall health and wellbeing;
• Contact with nature improves self-awareness, self-esteem, self-concept,
and positively affects mood state, which have positive flow-on effects to
physiological state (such as boosting immunity);
• Contact with nature is effective in alleviating the symptoms of anxiety,
depression, and psychosomatic illness (including irritability, restlessness,
insomnia, tension, headaches, and indigestion);
• Pet ownership and interacting with plants (i.e. via gardening) encourages individuals to undertake physical exercise;
• Pet-ownership can improve mental health by providing companionship
(regardless of overall health, socio-economic status, or physical exercise).

Giant swing on the way up astGlenhaven Park Camps

Social and community wellbeing

• Interacting with nature or participating in nature-based activities in one’s local neighbourhood (such as Friends of Parks groups) can promote a sense of community, foster a sense of belonging or sense of place, and enhance social ties/relationships;
• Pet ownership can foster social relationships through contact with other pet owners (or park users), thereby expanding social networks;
• Contact with nature reduces the stresses associated with urban living (such as crowding, noise, pollution, etc).
• Natural environments foster social capital within neighbourhoods by
providing settings for groups to meet formally and informally for recreational or leisure pursuits;
• Where community members are engaged in civic environmentalism (for
example, Friends of Parks and other community volunteer groups) there are significant spin-offs for social connectedness and social capital;
• Residents who have nature nearby, or who regularly pursue nature related activities have greater neighbourhood satisfaction, and have better overall health than residents who do not;
• Nature in high density urban living can reduce vandalism, violence, crime rates, ease racial tension or prejudices, and result in neighbourhood and personal transformation;
• Contact with nature can foster a sense of identity and ownership, and provide a sense of integration rather than isolation for newly arrived migrants;
• Horticultural therapy and animal-assisted therapy programs in prisons (via contact with plants or animals) can reduce aggression and vandalism in inmates, provide job training, and enhance self-esteem.

Economic wellbeing

• Views of nature from detention centres and prisons have the potential to reduce the incidence of illness (particularly stress related illness) in inmates, reducing health care costs in prisons;
• Views of nature from hospitals and other care facilities (such as nursing
homes) have the potential to reduce recovery time (number of days spent in hospital), reduce the quantities of medication required to treat patients, and reduce incidences of post-operative surgery in patients;
• Contact with nature improves job satisfaction, overall health, and reduces job stress in the workforce as well as reducing number of sick days and employee absences;
• Parks and natural features attract businesses;
• Trees in urban streets attract consumers and tourists to business districts, and are seen to increase appeal;
• Tourism is the third largest industry worldwide, with growth occurring
particularly in wilderness or nature-based tourism;
• Parks and nature tourism generate employment in regional areas;
• Significant natural features, including parks and gardens, raise real estate values;
• Contact with nature can potentially reduce the burden of disease on the
current health care system. For example, for pet ownership alone preliminary estimates of savings to the health care system are between AUD$790 million to AUD$1.5 billion annually (Headey and Anderson, 1995);
• Views of nature from detention centres and prisons have the potential to reduce the incidence of illness (particularly stress related illness) in inmates, also reducing health care costs in prisons;
• Interaction with nature encourages a holistic/ecological approach to health, giving people a sense of control over their own health and wellbeing which may lead to less reliance on health care services.

Environmental wellbeing

• Greater financial and in kind support for parks will assist conservation and improvement of the natural (indigenous) values of parks;
• Increased participation in ‘Friends of Parks’ and other volunteer groups may improve natural values/capital within parks
• Improved understanding of the need for natural areas may lead to green corridors and extended conservation areas
• Greater awareness of the human health and wellbeing benefits of nature may improve conservation of additional natural spaces (such as those set aside for industry, for example).

Life satisfaction

• Contact with nature reduces the incidence of negative feelings such as anger, fear, anxiety, and frustration, and induces peace of mind;
• Contact with nature, or having nature nearby, improves quality of life, work satisfaction, and the coping ability of residents in urban areas;
• Natural environments foster a state of reflection, enabling one to gain
perspective on life, and create an awareness of one’s surroundings;
• Knowing that nature is nearby (particularly animals) improves quality of life and neighbourhood satisfaction of residents;
• Contact with wilderness can develop leadership abilities, which translate positively into other areas of life;

Spiritual / existential wellbeing

• Nature provides spiritual inspiration, enabling people to gain a different or deeper perspective on life, for example by the realisation that they are part of something larger and universal;
• Contact with nature can inspire feelings of peace, oneness, connectedness, and strength;
• Nature is important to all people/cultures, in ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’ nations, for providing spiritual inspiration;
• Contemplation of nature can inspire a sense of freedom, reverence, encourage humility, prompt introspection and reflection on personal values, and lead to spiritual growth or enlightenment;
• Spirituality arising from contact with nature can reduce psychosis, substance abuse, and heal those suffering from violence and/or injury.

Other characteristics valued by humans

• Parks and nature are an affordable, non-elitist, highly accessible means of improving community health that may help people reach their full potential;
• Parks are a public resource yet to be fully utilised for individual and
community health and wellbeing.


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

Healthy parks, healthy people – In practice


Further evidence for the positive effects on health and wellbeing from contact with nature is found in some unique forms of therapy based on the human relationship with nature. These forms of treatment, discussed in the proceeding pages, have proven to be successful where conventional treatments have often had limited success.

Ecopsychology or nature-guided therapy

Glenhaven Park June 2018

Ecopsychology or nature-guided therapy considers every aspect of the human-nature relationship. It is primarily concerned with the fundamental alienation of humans from nature and the effects on human health (Scull, 2001; Burns, 1998; Gullone, 2000). The person-environment relationship is both the unit of analysis and the basis of treatment (Burns, 1998). Although only relatively recently adopted in modern western society, ecopsychology is essentially modern interpretation of ancient views of humans and nature held by many indigenous peoples. In essence, most native cultures view humans as part of the rest of nature by believing that human beings are intricately linked to all life forms and life-like processes, and that by harming nature we harm ourselves (Burns, 1998; Martin, 1996; Knudtson
and Suzuki, 1994; Suzuki, 1990; Rockefeller and Elder, 1992; Orr, 1993) (refer to earlier section on Spirituality ,Religion and Nature).

As echoed by researchers in other fields, ecopsychologists believe that
disconnection from nature has a heavy cost in impaired health and increased stress (Scull, 2001; Burns, 1998; Glendinning, 1995; Katcher and Beck, 1987; Gullone, 2000). Clinical ecopsychology operates on the premise that many psychological and physical afflictions can be due to withdrawal from the healing forces of the natural world (Scull, 2001; Roszak et al., 1995; Levinson, 1969). No longer able to identify with nature and its representatives, humans find themselves in a psychological void (Nasr, 1968). However, people may be able to regain some emotional harmony by re-establishing a bond with the animate and inanimate world (Levinson, 1969; 1983).

Many western psychologists are now readily adopting ecopsychology as a
form of treatment or are subscribing to its views (Burns, 1998; Durning, 1995; Hillman, 1995; Roszak et al., 1995). In fact, the field of mainstream psychology is undergoing a paradigm shift as a result of new problems brought about by urban existence and the destruction of the natural environment that are proving difficult to treat (Hillman, 1995). Australian psychologist George selection of nature-based interventions. The work cited
Burns (1998) reviewed by Burns (1998) included the following beneficial effects from contact with nature: enhancement of positive affect; stress reduction; improvement in parasympathetic nervous system functioning; and enhancement of self-concept, self-esteem, and self-confidence.

Although ecopsychological treatment usually involves excursions into wilderness, it is now recognised that any exposure to nature, such as spending time with plants and animals, or going to a park, can have positive benefits (Scull, 2001; Cohen, 2000). Burns (1998) has documented his success treating patients with simple nature-based assignments. These assignments use natural objects or natural processes that have in the past, or are likely to in the future, assist the patient with achieving a therapeutic goal. Burns (1998) has successfully treated patients suffering from a variety of negative psychological states associated with severe trauma, cancer, depression and anxiety, using nature as the basis for treatment.

Although there is a lack of scientific research in this area, in a similar way that wilderness therapy and outdoor adventure therapy also lack research evidence of their efficacy, anecdotal evidence suggests that ecopsychology is particularly successful in treating stress-related illness. However, unlike wilderness therapy and outdoor education from which the benefits may be short-term, ecopsychological treatment is believed to have more lasting positive benefits than ordinary outdoor recreation (Scull, 2001).

Stainbrook (1973, in Lewis, 1996) states that an over-urbanised, dirty environment, and a lack of natural surroundings confirms the negative self-appraisal a person may have developed through other negative contacts with society. Since self-esteem is the keystone to emotional wellbeing, a poor self-appraisal, among other factors, determines how one treats his/her surroundings and how destructive he or she will be towards themselves and others (Stainbrook, 1973 in Lewis, 1996). If the self were expanded to include the natural world, behaviour leading to destruction of natural systems would be interpreted as self-destruction (Roszak, 1995).

Hence, to suggest with the full weight of professional psychological authority that people are bonded emotionally to the earth gives a powerful new meaning into our understanding of the term ‘sanity’ (Roszak, 1995; Orr, 1993). Furthermore, as Levinson (1969; 1983) states, humans must remain in contact with nature throughout life if they are to maintain good mental health, not too mention their humanity. It has been proposed that the modern life as prescribed by Western Society results in adverse outcomes on the human psyche (Gullone, 2000), the full impacts of which are yet to be realised.

Attention restoration

Attention restoration theory suggests that contact with nature improves the
ability to concentrate and aids recovery from mental fatigue. Mental fatigue, as mentioned earlier, can arise from extended periods of directed attention on a particular task, while shutting out distractions (Herzog et al., 1997). Symptoms include a lack of concentration, increased irritability, and a proneness to mistakes or accidents. The effect of nature on children’s capacity for concentration was studied by Taylor et al. (2001) who tested the ability of nature to improve the concentration of children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). They found that children functioned better after activities were carried out in natural play settings, and that the ‘greener’ a play setting the less severe were the attention deficit symptoms (Taylor et al., 2001). ADD affects many children and can have a detrimental effect on most aspects of life (including school, interpersonal relationships, personal growth etc.) (Taylor et al., 2001). It is not an easy disorder to treat, but natural settings could be used to improve children’s concentration, thereby somewhat alleviating the need for drugs (that have serious side effects and do not aid children’s long-term health or development) (Taylor et al., 2001). This research highlights the importance of ‘green’ playgrounds and the availability and access to parks and nature for childcare centres, kindergartens, and schools.

However, attention restoration is not just relevant for children, but has increasing relevance for adults in the current social and economic environment in which people are working longer hours and spending long periods of time looking at computer screens. While Hartig et al. (2003) demonstrated that natural environments have both stress reducing and attention restoration benefits for young adults (university students), a study by Herzog et al. (2002), also involving university students in the USA, found that recognition of the restorative effects of natural environments was limited. Herzog et al. (2002) suggest that strategies to address this lack of awareness should include communication of the benefits through images and narratives, and urban design which brings people closer to nature.

Wilderness experience and wilderness therapy

As well as being restorative in terms of attention enhancement and stress
reduction, natural environments can also be used educationally and therapeutically for other purposes. The terminology for such activities varies, and includes ‘outdoor education’, ‘outdoor adventure’, ‘wilderness experience’, ‘wilderness therapy’, ‘wilderness adventure therapy’ and ‘bush adventure therapy’. Whatever the terminology, participation in such activities is typically undertaken for physical, emotional and/or psychological health reasons (Mitten, 2004). However, its potential as a population-wide health promotion tool has only recently been recognised (Pryor, Carpenter and Townsend, 2005).

Challenges presented by wilderness are used in wilderness experience programs such as Outward Bound and other wilderness therapy programs to boost the self-confidence and self-esteem of participants. These programs encourage leadership ability, social cohesiveness, and facilitate an increased awareness of, and respect for, nature (Furnass, 1979). Although these benefits can be substantial and have a long-term effect on individuals, it has been claimed that they are somewhat superficial compared to the psychological and spiritual benefits that can arise from contact with wilderness itself (Cumes, 1998).

At least one wilderness program, however, draws on this aspect, namely the
Wilderness Vision Quest Program, run in the United States (Easley, 1991). This program, founded in 1976, emphasises the spiritual dimensions of contact with the natural world and focuses on fostering conscious efforts to heal, enrich, and expand the human spirit (Brown, 1984 in Easely, 1991). Deeper experiences with wilderness are used in the emotional and psychological treatment of patients suffering from any number of conditions, including psychosis, substance abuse (Bennett et al., 1997) or violence, and injury (Beringer, 1999; Crisp and O’Donnell, 1998). The combination of physical activity and social connection in the context of the natural environment has been found to be effective in preventing both the
onset and the escalation of depression (Crisp and Hinch, 2004). However, the multifaceted nature of the outcomes of such programs (particularly their broader social and environmental wellbeing outcomes) is often forgotten in the intense focus on the outcomes for individual participants. ‘When small groups of people adventure together in natural environments, the health and wellbeing of humans, communities and the natural environment are enhanced’ (Pryor, Carpenter and Townsend, 2005 p. 11).

activities at Glenhaven Park
Campsite (Accommodation Type)

This area is only just beginning to be understood and no appropriate terms
exist for the powerful effect of nature on the human psyche, although the term ‘wilderness rapture’ has recently been suggested by Cumes (1998). More thorough research on wilderness therapy programs is required, particularly to determine whether beneficial effects on participant’s lives are long-term. One commonly reported outcome of wilderness therapy is that self perceptions and perceptions about the one’s relationship to the natural world change (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989). This can assist people in finding meaning or higher purpose in life.

Some of the most important wilderness areas worldwide are contained in parks. Those parks that have minimum facilities or infrastructure are ideal settings for wilderness therapy or wilderness adventure. For example, many National Parks and all of the Wilderness parks in Victoria (like Big Desert and Wabba Wilderness Park) although designed for conservation, are also ideal for self-reliant recreation and the use of wilderness for therapeutic purposes.


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

Healthy parks, healthy people – Leisure and recreation benefits

Some Known Health Benefits of Contact with Nature in a Park Context

Health benefit Key references Park example
Viewing Nature
Improves concentration, remedies mental fatigue, improves psychological health (particularly emotional and cognitive aspects), and positively affects mood state (Kaplan, 1995; Rohde and Kendle, 1994; Ulrich et al., 1991b; Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989) Parks,such as Tarr Bulga National Park or Sugarloaf Reservoi, are ideal spots for picnicking as a way to view the natural environment to renew body and mind
Reduces stress and tension and improves self-reports of wellbeing (positively influencing the immune system by reducing production of stress hormones such as cortisol and corticosterone)(Leather et al., 1998; Lewis, 1996; Rohde and Kendle, 1994; Kaplan, 1992a)Apart from active exploration, many parks can be experienced from within a vehicle, particularly those with scenic drives such as Macedon Regional Park or Angahook-Lorne State Park
When exposed to scenes of natural environments subjects recover faster and are more resistant to subsequent stress, which also is likely to boost immunity(Parsons et al., 1998)All parks provide ready views of nature and parks like Albert Park and Yarra Bend Park are especially important in urban areas for stress release and wellbeing
Recovery from a stressful event is faster and more complete when subjects are exposed to natural rather than urban scenes, and heart rate and muscle tension decreases (yet it increases when viewing urban scenes)(Ulrich et al., 1991b)Parks near places of high stress such as prisons, hospitals, and nursing homes most likely provide many more benefits beyond purely aesthetic ones
Viewing nature improves performance in attention demanding tasks (Tennessen and Cimprich, 1995)Natural views are provided in urban areas courtesy of local, neighbourhood, and regional parks (many of which are managed by local as well as State government)
Viewing nature aids recovery from mental fatigue (attention restoration) and encourages reflection by requiring involuntary attention (Herzog et al., 1997; Kaplan, 1995; 1992b; Hartig et al., 1991; Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989; Furnass, 1979)Some parks can provide close up views of nature to aid in attention restoration, while others like Port Campbell provide views of wide, open spaces encouraging a fresh perspective on life
Views of flowers and trees in the workplace reduce perceived job stress, improve job satisfaction, and reduce the incidence of reported illness and headaches of office workers (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989) As well as providing a natural view, parks in urban areas are used by office workers to take a break from being indoors, to breath fresh air, view nature, and
absorb sunshine
Trees nearby: decrease levels of fear, incivilities, and violence amongst residents; decrease crime rates in public housing; and improve the life satisfaction of residents (Kuo and Sullivan, 2001; Kuo, 2001) The positive effects of vegetation on communities could have an impact on future park planning and park placement.
Parks preserve and maintain
essential habitat and ecosystems,
(including trees and other
Health benefit Key references Park example
Being in Nature
Natural play settings reduce the severity of symptoms of children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and improve concentration (Taylor et al., 2001) Parks within urban areas such as Yarra Bend Park or Wattle Park are easily accessible to educational groups such as schools and family or community organisations
Viewing nature enhances residents’ satisfaction and makes higher density living more acceptable (Kaplan, 2001; Rodiek and Fried, 2005; Kearney, 2006)Parks near residential developments may provide a range of social and emotional benefits to residents
Natural surroundings assist cognitive functioning in children ells, 2000) Parks have special significance to schools, kindergartens, and childcare centres with limited green space
Wilderness areas provide spiritual inspiration, enable people to gain a fresh perspective on life, and provide an opportunity to ‘get away’(Ward Thompson et al, 2005; Cumes, 1998; Cordell et al., 1998; Martin, 1996; Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989) Parks of intact wilderness, such as Grampians National Park or Bay of Islands Coastal Park, can provide spiritual inspiration for local, interstate, and international visitors
Therapy in a wilderness setting heals
emotional and psychological conditions and
can aid those recovering from substance abuse
and violence
(Russell et al., 1999;
Crisp and O’Donnell,
1998; Crisp and
Aunger, 1998;
Bennett et al., 1997;
Byers, 1979)
Large, rugged National Parks such
as Wilson’s Promontory are ideal
for wilderness therapy excursions
and Outward Bound programs
where there can be many
physical and mental challenges
to overcome, as well as much to
Outward Bound and similar programs use wilderness challenges to boost self-confidence and self-esteem (Cumes, 1998; Furnass, 1979)Many National Parks have minimal visitor infrastructure which is ideal for wilderness challenges or for those seeking adventure
Observing Plants andGardens, or Gardening
Community gardens increase community cohesion, reduce graffiti and violence and enhance self-image of residents (Lewis, 1996; Reuter and Reuter, 1992; Lewis, 1992; 1990; Bartolomei, Corkery, Judd, and Thompson, 2003; Glover, Shinew and Parry, 2004; Parry and Shinew, 2005; Glover, Shinew and Parry, 2005.)The most significant aspect of community gardens is the sense of ownership residents’ gain. This could also apply to Friends of Parks groups who care for their local park
Gardening and gardens help people to feel tranquil and at peace (Butterfield and Relf, 1992) Sculptured gardens such as the National Rhododendron Gardens
Health benefit Key references Park example
In habitat restoration people see a metaphor for their own personal transformation and growth, enhancing psychological wellbeing (Shapiro, 1995) Many of the Friends of Parks groups regularly carry out habitat restoration via planting and weeding workshops
Gardens improve psychological wellbeing, provide environmental stimulation, a means of self-expression, physical exercise, and social interaction for residents of retirement communities (Browne, 1992) Retirement communities without gardens can readily access urban parks and gardens whether highly manicured (e.g. National Rhododendron Gardens) or more natural parks (e.g. Yarra Bend Park)
Residents who have nature nearby or regularly pursue nature-related activities (e.g. gardening, birdwatching) have greater neighbourhood satisfaction, overall health and life satisfaction than residents who do notFrey, 1981 in Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989; Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989; (Kaplan, 2001; Kearney, 2006) Many residents in urban areas are in close proximity to a park, yet as housing density increases, increased pressure will be placed on existing parklands


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

Healthy parks, healthy people – Leisure and recreation

Although many benefits arise from the act of recreation itself, whether it be a hobby or playing a team sport, the concern here is with the types of recreation that occur in natural or semi-natural settings and the particular benefits that may arise from carrying out the activity in those settings.

Leisure and recreation experiences in natural environments probably reduce stress through a number of mechanisms, including a sense of control through active coping or escape, and the therapeutic effects of exposure to natural environments that most likely have learned as well as biological origins (Ulrich et al., 1991a). For example, many people each year flock to parks and wilderness areas for their annual holiday to ‘experience’ the wilderness, and the number of people seeking these experiences is increasing (Freimund and Cole, 2001). Associated with this is a rise in the number of people pursuing non-consumptive nature-related recreational activities, such as birdwatching. This is often referred to as ‘wildlife-watching’ or ‘watchable-wildlife’ and includes observing, feeding, or photographing wildlife (U.S. Department of the Interior et al., 1996). Much work has been carried out on this topic in the United States and although similar trends are likely in Australia, there is almost no data on wildlife watching by Australians or visitors to Australia (D. Jones personal communication).

Recreation in the natural settings provided by parks is becoming increasingly important as our lives become dominated by indoor activities. Some authors anticipate that allowing people to interact with nature (such as spending time in parks during the working week) to reduce tension and increase competence and productivity, will eventually become socially accepted and actively encouraged (S. Kaplan in Lewis, 1996). Pursuing recreation in a park setting enables people to develop a clearer understanding of their relatedness to nature, which can influence their everyday lives and preferences (Martin, 1996). This can have quite
a powerful effect as a form of intervention treatment, for example as used in wilderness therapy (see section titled ‘Health Benefits of Nature in Practice’).

Wilderness and related studies clearly demonstrate that being in a natural environment affects people positively, although the exact benefits are still largely unknown. There are also multiple benefits from brief encounters with nature or experiencing nature on a smaller scale, such as in urban parks. As outlined by Woolley (2003), the most obvious benefits and opportunities that urban green spaces may provide for inner city living are social benefits – that is opportunities for people to participate in events and activities. Similarly, the Sydney Urban Parks Education Research (SUPER) Group (2001), stated that urban green space, in particular parks and gardens, may generate a range of social and economic values for the Australian community.

These benefits may include:
• opportunities for activity for older people;
• supervised child-care;
• health improvement and fitness motivation;
• education in sport, environment and other endeavours;and
• individual personal development.

Survey work has shown that nature is important to people, and numbers of
people seeking nature-related recreation overseas is increasing. Similarly, research indicates that in Sydney, Australia, inner city residents have the highest visitation rate to urban parks, no doubt due to small or non-existent personal gardens or backyards (Veal, 2001). Some of the benefits of being in nature in a park context are presented in Table 2.

Contact with plants

Gardens and gardening

Gardening and gardens are central features of societies throughout the world. It is claimed by some researchers that, across the world, gardening is the most common nature-based activity (Lewis 1996; Kaplan and Kaplan 1989). The American College of Sports Medicine (2004) goes further, suggesting that gardening is among the most popular leisure pursuits (not just among pursuits which are nature-based). Moreover, research indicates that gardening is good for human health and wellbeing in many ways. For example, gardening allows people to interact with the natural environment, which has psychological, physiological and social benefits (Frumkin 2003; Pretty et al. 2007).

As well as the leisure aspects of gardening noted above, gardening provides
opportunities for beneficial physical activity (Nieman 2003), can be used
therapeutically in drug rehabilitation centres, prisons and hospitals(Frumkin 2001; Lewis 1996; Relf 1992), fosters recovery from the stresses and strains of everyday living (Kaplan and Kaplan 1990), and can enhance community cohesion and transform neighbourhood relationships (Lewis 1990, 1992, 1996).

The physiological benefits of gardening are fairly obvious, but the benefits have also been verified by research (including research on gardening and diabetes by Armstrong 2000, and research on gardening and general health maintenance by Galloway and Jokl 2000). Other more recent claims of physical health benefits of gardening include Rothert (2007 p. 26) who states that ‘the lifting and reaching motions of gardening can strengthen weak muscles and increase limited joint flexibility ranges. Physical stamina and skills such as balance and coordination can be improved’. Gardening has also been cited as a means of prevention for osteoporosis. According to Kovach (2006 p.56), researchers at the University of Arkansas ‘found that women 50 and older, who gardened at least once a week, showed higher bone density readings than those who engaged in other types of exercise including jogging, swimming, walking and aerobics’. Gardening has also
been found to be beneficial in reducing another age-related condition dementia. A recent Australian study of nursing home admissions to identify risk factors for dementia (Simons et al. 2006) found a 36% reduction in risk associated with daily gardening. A garden has been likened to a gymnasium: ‘Turning compost is essentially lifting weights, raking is like using a rowing machine’ says Dan Hickey (2004) of the (US) National Gardening Association.

One of the most passionate advocates for the psychological health benefits of plants is Charles Lewis. Lewis (Lewis, 1990; 1992; 1996) believes that vegetation, whether part of a garden, park or wilderness setting has great potential for healing. According to Lewis (1990), when humans first view it, a park or garden is a visual experience. However, the image is then transmitted from the eye to the brain where it is decoded, recognised, and can be transferred to a deeper level of being (Lewis, 1990).

A recent article in a newsletter from the Nursery and Garden Industry Australia Limited (2006 p. 1), citing the 9th annual Ipsos Mackay ‘Mind and Mood’ report, highlights the importance of the restorative and community building aspects of gardening, saying: ‘Australians consistently report higher levels of anxiety, irritability, grumpiness—all associated with what is assumed to be a rising level of tension in the community. … Gardens and gardening may offer one of the few antidotes to a community so frenzied.’

Lewis (1990) also points out that the benefits of gardening are not dependent on age or on physical strength, but are available to the young and the old alike, to those who can be actively involved and those who can only observe or even interact with gardens only through their sense of smell. According to Lewis (1990), plants heal via two modes: observational mode and participatory mode. Observational mode occurs when viewing vegetation in a garden or wilderness, but the observer has no responsibility for its care (e.g. in a park or wilderness area). Participatory mode occurs when an individual is responsible for nurturing a plant or garden (or even wilderness), and it is through their efforts that the plant/s thrive. Lewis (1990) has stated that the act of nurturing and being responsible for plants at a more intimate level is a more intense experience than that gained
through observation alone, however, both observation and participation produce wellbeing (Lewis, 1990). Interestingly, a questionnaire sent to members of the American Horticultural Society and readers of an organic gardening magazine found that the most beneficial aspects of gardening cited by respondents were peacefulness and tranquillity, rather than the tangible benefits of food or flower production (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989).

The Kaplans’ notion of restorative experiences was an idea that emerged from their work in wilderness research, but they found that it is also relevant to the experience of gardening (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1990). As noted previously, restorative experiences are based on the fact that mental effort, stress, and the demand of everyday living cause fatigue and affect one’s capacity to concentrate, or direct attention to one particular task (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1990). A restorative environment fosters recovery from this state. It requires four elements: fascination, a sense of being away, extent or scope, and compatibility with an individual’s inclinations (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989). These four factors are found in natural places such as parks and gardens, or in the act of gardening itself.

The importance of the health benefits of gardening in relation to parks and nature is apparent when considering environment groups like ‘Friends of Parks’. These groups regularly volunteer their time to restore and rehabilitate parks (i.e. public gardens) by planting, watering, and weeding, among other activities. Although the health of people who have private gardens has been investigated somewhat, there was until recently little known about the potential health benefits from membership and participation in a ‘public gardening’ group. In many urban areas, particularly with recent increases in high density housing, contact with nature and natural environments, typically gained through the ‘Australian birthright of owning a free-standing bungalow on a quarter-acre block surrounded by leafy gardens’ (Mayne-Wilson 2005 p. 3) is available only via public parks.

Research by Bhatti and Church (2000) suggests that gardening may be experienced differently by males and females. Other research suggests that socio-economic status influences the amount of time spent in gardens (Armstrong 2000). For children, school gardens have been found to enrich teaching and learning experiences, increase scientific knowledge and environmental awareness, and foster positive relationships between children, adults and the local community (Maller and Townsend 2006).

For older people, especially those living in retirement communities, the
availability of a garden not only enables residents to actively garden but also encourages and supports informal activities ‘such as walking and talking with friends’ (Browne 1992 p. 78). Sifton (2004 p. 89) tells the story of John Angus:

Glenhaven Park Stockport
John Angus had worked all of his life with the land and plants; for John Angus, growing things was more than a way to earn a living, it was his life. … Tragically, when I met John Angus, independently tending a garden or plants was out of the question due to the symptoms of advanced Alzheimer’s disease. His language skills were quite well preserved, but he was particularly troubled by motor co-ordination and movement difficulties. He had so little command or sense of his body that he required full assistance to get dressed or even to sit in a chair. And distress with his losses often led to behavioural symptoms such as agitation. 
John Angus had been living in various institutions for several months when I suggested that he come with me to help with some potting up. The very suggestion brightened him up immensely. As I guided his hands to the potting soil, tears began to run down his smiling cheeks.
With hands immersed in his beloved soil, John Angus said: ‘This is just heaven, just heaven, and I had no idea that it was so handy to home’.

For asylum seekers and refugees, the opportunity to participate in gardening has been shown to assist in dealing with the traumas they have experienced prior to resettlement (Hodge 2003).

Because of the diverse and widely applicable benefits they offer, gardens are increasingly being used for therapeutic reasons


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

Healthy parks, healthy people – Being in nature

Being in natural environments, whether hiking in a World Heritage area or sitting in a local urban park, has many psychophysiological beneficial effects on health (i.e. positive psychological effects that translate into positive physiological effects). Although there is much anecdotal evidence documenting the benefits of ‘being in nature’, the exact effects (for example by using psychophysiological measures) on the human mind, body, and spirit are still largely unknown. It has been suggested that some of the benefits from being in natural settings arise from a mood state of pleasant arousal and relaxation, resulting from returning to a more cyclical, and slower sense of time (Nettleton, 1992; Furnass, 1979).

Nettleton (1992) reviewed some of the literature describing positive emotional states arising out of time spent in natural settings. A study by Russell and Pratt (1980 in Nettleton, 1992) found that parks and gardens were perceived as relaxing and peaceful and were associated with a positive mood state, while supermarkets were perceived as distressing and associated with a negative mood state. A later study conducted at one of the train stations in the Melbourne underground railway system (Parliament Station) found that when asked about what they liked about the station, commuters mentioned a small park (MacArthur Gardens) located just outside the exit of the station that they walked through on their way to the train, whereas the station itself was viewed as sterile, daunting, and stark (Joske et al., 1989 in Nettleton, 1992).

outside education

City life is dominated by mechanical time (punctuality, deadlines, etc) yet our bodies and minds are dominated by biological time. Conflicts between mechanical and biological time can result in a variety of unpleasant psychosomatic symptoms including irritability, restlessness, depression,
insomnia, tension and headaches, and indigestion (Furnass, 1979). If unaddressed, these problems have the potential to eventuate into illnesses that are more serious. The experience of nature in a neurological sense can help strengthen the activities of the right hemisphere of the brain, and restore harmony to the functions of the brain as a whole (Furnass, 1979). This is perhaps a technical explanation of the process that occurs when people ‘clear their head’ by going for a walk in a park and emphasises the importance of parks in providing communities with access to nature. Furthermore, in the act of contemplating nature, researchers have found that the brain is relieved of ‘excess’ circulation (or activity), and nervous system activity is also reduced (Yogendra, 1958).

Nature does have great importance to people. In a survey of 1,900 adults in the US, Cordell et al. (1998) found that approximately 45% of respondents rated wilderness as ‘very important’ or ‘extremely important’ for spiritual inspiration, and a further 56% stated that just knowing it exists was ‘very important’ or ‘extremely important’. This confirms the conceptual importance of nature to people described by Kaplan and Kaplan (1989).

Being in natural environments invokes a sense of ‘oneness’ with nature and the universe, and can lead to transcendental experiences (Rohde and Kendle, 1994). This is more likely to occur in wilderness settings, although as it relates to subjective experience it is probable that nature in urban environments could produce the same effect.

In order to encourage people to be in nature, the accessibility of urban green spaces should be considered. With current trends in Australia and other Western countries towards an ageing demographic, it is important to make urban green space accessible to all. Furthermore, urban green spaces should be created as beautiful places in cities – places that are socially cohesive and promote social solidarity (Ward Thompson, 2002).

Restorative settings

The increasing complexity of both technological tasks and the built environment is generally a source of many negative stress response patterns for the majority of people (West, 1986 in Lewis, 1996). In contrast, the natural environment has been found to have a restorative quality, particularly for people who live in urban environments. Natural places such as parks offer an opportunity to become revitalised and refreshed. Living in urban areas often means dealing with environmental demands such as crowds, noise, pollution, and primarily uniformed structures. It has been demonstrated that these factors can cause mental fatigue and exhaustion (Furnass, 1979; Rohde and Kendle, 1994), whereas exposure to nature has been demonstrated to have the opposite effect. Symptoms of mental fatigue include: decreased ability to concentrate and solve problems, heightened irritability, and a greater susceptibility to make mistakes or cause accidents (Herzog et al., 1997).

South Australian Camps Adults and children

The Kaplans (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989; Kaplan and Kaplan, 1990; Kaplan,
1992a; Kaplan, 1992b; Kaplan, 1995) have developed the notion of ‘restorative environments’ that foster recovery from this state of mental fatigue. Restorative environments require four elements: fascination (an involuntary form of attention requiring effortless interest, or curiosity); a sense of being away (temporary escape from one’s usual setting or situation); extent or scope (a sense of being part of a larger whole); and compatibility with an individual’s inclinations (opportunities provided by the setting and whether they satisfy the individual’s purposes) (Kaplan
and Kaplan, 1989; Hartig et al., 1991). For a more detailed discussion, see Hartig et al. (1991) or Kaplan and Kaplan (1989). Parks are ideal for restorative experiences due to their ability to satisfy the four elements described above (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989; Kaplan and Kaplan, 1990; Kaplan, 1992a; Kaplan, 1992b; Kaplan, 1995). When comparing a walk in a natural setting (a park), a walk in an urban setting, and relaxing in a comfortable chair, Hartig et al. (1991) found that mental fatigue was most successfully relieved by a walk in a park.

Furthermore, Kaplan et al. (1998) suggest that the implications for design and management of natural environments to be restorative are vast and vital. They suggested that the natural setting may be beneficial to not only its immediate users but also to those who view it from afar. In addition, Kaplan et al. (1998, p.77) stated that ‘if treated as the opportunity for increasing the sanity and welfare of those who can see it, it becomes every bit as important as hallways and lighting’. Herzog, Chen and Primeau (2002 p. 295), reporting on a study of undergraduate students in the USA, concluded that ‘the restorative potential of natural settings is probably underappreciated’. This is supported by results of research by Hartig
et al. (2003), also involving university students, in which the restorative effects of natural settings were accentuated by the negative effects associated with the urban surroundings and windowless room that acted as ‘controls’.

low ropes course Glenhaven Park

In recent years, Frances Kuo and her colleagues (2001; 2002) have conducted research to examine the effectiveness of the Attention Restoration Theory in the inner city context. Their work has focussed on high-rise residents and the effects of nearby nature on a range of factors including: the ability to cope with major life issues, Attention Deficit Disorder and children’s self-discipline. For example, a study conducted by Taylor, Kuo and Sullivan (2002) examined the relationship between nearby views of ‘green’ nature and children’s ability to concentrate, inhibit impulses and delay gratification. They found that the more ‘green’ a girl’s
view from her high-rise window was, the better able to concentrate and the more self-disciplined she was.

Similarly, Kuo (2001) examined whether nearby nature effects high-rise residents’ ability to cope with poverty and life issues. She found that residents with ‘green’ surroundings were able to pay attention more effectively and found their major life issues to be less difficult to deal with than their counterparts with ‘barren’ surroundings. Furthermore, Taylor, Kuo and Sullivan (2001) tested whether the Attention Restoration Theory could be applied to children and their capacity to deal with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Through the use of parental surveys, children were tested for their attentional functioning in a range of play settings, and green settings were found to be most effective in enhancing attention. The authors concluded that the ‘greener’ a child’s play setting, the less severe her ADD symptoms appeared (Taylor et al., 2001).


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

Healthy parks, healthy people – Health benefits of nature: The evidence


The belief that contact with nature fosters psychological wellbeing and reduces the stress of urban living seems to be as old as urbanisation itself (Ulrich and Parsons, 1992; Ulrich, 1993), and as mentioned, was the guiding principle behind the first parks. There are many ways that humans come into contact with nature, including viewing natural scenes, being in natural settings, or encountering plants and animals. Some of these occurrences are ‘everyday’ interactions, and others are more specific and affect people at a deeper level. This section briefly examines everyday human-nature interactions, as well as those interactions with landscapes, wilderness, plants and animals (Frumkin, 2001).

 Note: We have included here only those human relationships with animals and plants where no economic benefit is to be gained from the relationship (so the interactions between farmers and their stock and/or crops are not included, nor are other commercial nature-based industries). This is not to say that the same benefits as described here may not also arise from these relationships. However, there have been virtually no studies examining the potential health benefits of people working with nature in these industries and as the majority are now large-scale operations; whatever benefits to be gained in terms of health are likely to be overshadowed by the impersonal nature of any interactions that may occur.
Glenhaven Park June 2018

Viewing nature

In recent decades, landscape researchers have conducted studies to investigate individuals’ preferences for natural scenery (eg. Kaplan and Talbot, 1988; Talbot, 1988; Talbot, Bardwell, and Kaplan, 1987; Talbot and Kaplan, 1984; 1986; 1991). Since the early work of Talbot and Kaplan (1984) through to more recent work by Kaplan (2001), studies generally indicate that people prefer viewing natural landscapes rather than the built environment. Furthermore, there is now considerable empirical and theoretical evidence for the positive effects that simply viewing natural scenes can have on human health.

The healing effects of a natural view (such as those provided by parks) are
increasingly being understood in stressful environments such as hospitals,
nursing homes, remote military sites, space ships and space stations (Lewis, 1996). In these environments particularly, as well as for people who work in windowless offices, studies show that seeing nature is important to people and is an effective means of relieving stress and improving wellbeing (Leather et al., 1998; Lewis, 1996; Kaplan, 1992a). Research such as this could have important implications for the placement and planning of parks in urban areas.

One famous study examining recovery rates of patients who underwent gall bladder surgery found that those with a natural view recovered faster, spent less time in hospital, had better evaluation from nurses, required fewer painkillers, and had less postoperative complications compared to those that viewed an urban scene (Ulrich, 1984). Similarly, Ulrich and colleagues (1991b) studied the effects of different natural and urban scenes on subjects who had just watched a stressful film (horror genre). Measuring a whole array of physiological measures (including heart rate, skin conductance, muscle tension and pulse transit time (a non-invasive measure that correlates with systolic blood pressure)) they found that recovery was faster and more complete when subjects were exposed to natural rather than urban scenes (Ulrich et al., 1991b). The physiological
data measured by this study suggests that natural settings elicit a response that includes a component of the parasympathetic nervous system associated with the restoration of physical energy (Ulrich et al., 1991a).

Similar research conducted in prison environments suggests that cell window views of nature are associated with a lower frequency of stress symptoms in inmates, including digestive illnesses and headaches, and with fewer sick calls overall by prisoners (Moore, 1981). Natural views can also result in better performance in attention demanding tasks (Tennessen and Cimprich, 1995). Tennessen and Cimprich (1995) gave university students a test and compared scores of students who had natural views to those that did not. They found that those with a view of nature scored better on the test than those with non-natural views. Furthermore, a study by Heerwagen and Orians (1986, in Lewis, 1996) compared the preferences of office workers for visual decor (i.e. photographs or posters) in windowed and window-less offices. Findings showed that people who worked in offices without windows were four times more likely to choose photographs or posters of outdoor/natural scenes than those who worked in offices with windows; more than 75% of scenes represented in window-less offices
contained no buildings or human-made artefacts at all (Heerwagen and Orians, 1986 in Lewis, 1996).

Glenhaven Park June 2018

Further evidence shows that access to nature in the workplace is related to lower levels of perceived job stress and higher levels of job satisfaction (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989). Workers with a view of trees and flowers felt that their jobs were less stressful and they were more satisfied with their jobs than others who could only see built environments from their window. In addition, employees with views of nature reported fewer illnesses and headaches (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989). A similar study found that a view of natural elements (trees and other vegetation) buffered the negative impact of job stress on intention to quit (Leather et al., 1998). Parsons et al. (1998) reviewed the literature on commuter stress in car drivers and the mitigating effects of roadside environments. Driving is known to be a
stressful activity, and causes several physiological changes in the body, including: activation of the sympathetic nervous system, increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, and an increase in heart rate variability (Parsons et al., 1998). Stress recovery and immunisation were measured in subjects exposed to one of four simulated drives (drives with forest/rural scenery, drives along the outside of golf courses, drives through urban scenes, and drives through mixed roadside scenery), immediately following and preceding mildly stressful events. Findings demonstrated that participants who viewed nature-dominated drives experienced quicker recovery from stress and greater immunisation to subsequent stress than
participants who viewed artifact-dominated drives (Parsons et al., 1998).

Kaplan (2001) found that apartment residents had enhanced wellbeing and
greater neighbourhood satisfaction when they could look out onto more natural rather than more built settings. However, satisfaction was far greater when residents could see even a few trees than when their view was of large open spaces (Kaplan, 2001). Similarly, results from a study by Kaplan (1985) suggested that urban residents who could see gardens found their neighbours to be friendlier and felt their housing development had a stronger sense of community, thus contributing to their neighbourhood satisfaction. Furthermore, Kearney (2006) found that having a view of natural environments (particularly forests and landscaping) increased residents’ neighbourhood satisfaction and suggested that higher density living, such as highrise living, could be more acceptable if residents have a natural view.

The beneficial effects of viewing nature on psychological state, and in particular mood affect were examined by Ulrich (1979, 1982, in Rohde and Kendle, 1994). Ulrich (1979 in Rohde and Kendle, 1994) found that participants who viewed slides of unspectacular scenes of nature had an increase in positive mood affect, while those who viewed scenes of urban areas experienced a decline in positive mood affect. In this and a later study, Ulrich (1982, in Rohde and Kendle, 1994) concluded that scenes of nature, particularly those depicting water, had a beneficial influence on the psychological state of humans. In their review of the literature, Rohde and Kendle (1994) state that the positive psychological response to nature involves feelings of pleasure, sustained attention or interest, ‘relaxed
wakefulness’, and diminution of negative emotions, such as anger and anxiety.

Glenhaven Park June 2018

Kaplan and Kaplan (1989) point out that observing or viewing nature is an
important form of involvement with it. Much of the pleasure that people derive out of nature comes from opportunities to observe, and much of this observation occurs, not when people are in nature itself, but when they are looking out a window (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989). This type of observation lets the mind wander and provides an opportunity for reflection. It can also aid recovery from mental fatigue. ‘Mental fatigue’ is a term coined by Stephen Kaplan (1987b in Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989) and arises from an intense period of concentration or directed attention (whether pleasant or unpleasant) that eventually results in a worn-out mental state with symptoms including irritability and a lack of concentration. It has been shown that natural environments are ideal environments to foster recovery from this state (see below). The reason for this is that the act of viewing
or observing nature does not require directed or focussed attention, but instead requires undirected or effortless attention, which is non-taxing and can restore mental capabilities.

Evidence presented here has demonstrated that just by viewing nature many aspects of human health and development can be markedly improved. Some of these benefits in a park context are summarised in Table 2. Although the benefits are mostly psychological, flow-on effects to physical health have also been documented in the literature. Viewing nature is positive for health, particularly in terms of recovering from stress, improving concentration and productivity, and improving psychological state, particularly of people in confined circumstances such as prisons, hospitals and high-rise apartments/high density living. From these findings, it is clear that visual access to nature in urban settings should be taken into account and given appropriate priority when planning urban areas. As well as viewing landscapes, however, many therapeutic effects can be gained from being in nature.


As discussed above there are many ways of examining the human-nature
relationship, yet knowledge about our relationship with nature is still incomplete. Despite this, the importance of the natural environment is apparent across cultures and varying population groups. Overall, there is a strengthening perception that contact with nature is beneficial to adults and children alike, and is perhaps an antidote to health and wellbeing problems associated with an increasingly urbanised modern lifestyle. Some of the evidence is discussed in the following section titled ‘Health Benefits of Contact with Nature: The Evidence.’


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

activities at Glenhaven Park

Healthy parks, healthy people – Understanding the human-nature relationship, Part 3

Gender and nature

Although much has been published in philosophy and sociology linking the
concepts of gender and nature, this is not the focus of the discussion here (e.g. Wilson, 2005; Norgaard, 2000). Although some reference is made to the philosophical literature, this review is concerned more with human perceptions of day-to-day contact with nature and how it can influence health and wellbeing. Yet research in this area on gender remains undeveloped, and what little is published relates mostly to women.

The Ecofeminist literature offers some interesting insights into conceptualisations of gender and nature. Norgaard (2000) provides numerous historical examples of the assignment of ‘male’ and ‘female’ genders to certain aspects of nature. For example, she attempts to explain gender-nature relationships by examining symbolic references from history, where Gaia, Eve and Isis were considered ‘female nature’, and Pan, Neptune and Thor were considered ‘male nature’ (Norgaard, 2000). Filemyr (1997) argues that nature as ‘the outdoors’ is gendered as a male space, racialised as a white space (see section entitled ‘Ethnicity and Nature’
above), and sexualised as a heterosexual space. Although a personal account, her article raises some important issues that could be tackled in future research.

In their study on gender, ethnicity, and urban park preferences, Ho et al. (2005) review some of the available literature on gender and nature. They cite the work of Hutchison (1994 in Ho et al., 2005) who found that in parks women were more likely than men to engage in stationary activities (i.e. associated with child care or as a member of a mixed gender social group), whereas men were more likely to participate in mobile activities such as sport, and to do so as individuals or with peers. Furthermore, new immigrant women have been found to be less likely than Western women to engage in activities outdoors, including the use of urban parks (Eyler et al., 2002 in Ho et al., 2005), let alone other ‘less tamed’ natural environments such as wilderness areas.

The work by Virden and Walker (1999) on forest environments also found that women perceived forests as more threatening than men. Virden and Walker (1999) explain that this is most likely due to women’s fear of their own species, particularly men, rather than fear of other animals. Indeed, the work by Wesley and Gardner (2004) seems to confirm this. They studied women partaking in a wilderness adventure program in the United States, who despite feeling empowered by their wilderness experience, still considered themselves vulnerable to violence in outdoor environments, particularly from men (Wesely and Gardner, 2004). Conversely, work by Pohl et al. (2000) found that rather than simply feeling empowered, women’s wilderness recreation resulted in feelings of increased self-confidence, assertiveness, problem-solving skills, self-trust, and self-worth outcomes which were transferred to their daily life and which enabled them to challenge norms and the restrictive worldviews of those around them. For their own findings on women, fear, and forest environments, Virden and Walker (2004) offer an alternative explanation by describing the possibility of a distinct, but not necessarily exclusive, feminine view of forested environments that perceives forests as threatening, but also as more mysterious and awe-inspiring that men do, where nature is considered an entity or organism in it’s own right (Virden and Walker, 1999).

Interestingly, in an early study by Kellert and Berry (1984) which investigated gender variations in human relationships to animals and nature, female participants scored higher on the humanistic and moralistic attitude scales than men, which Kellert and Berry (1984) reported was indicative of greater emotional attachment to individual animals and more concern for their ethical treatment. Along similar lines, Kruse (1999) studied gender, perceptions of nature and support for animal rights. He too found that women displayed greater support for animal rights than men. However, Kalof (2003) cites work by Peek et al. (1997) which showed that women’s devotion to animal rights is not explained by an ethic of care, but is instead explained by women’s subordination in the social hierarchy whereby an experience of oppression results in empathy for other oppressed groups, including animals. In terms of men, Kellert and Berry’s (1984) findings suggested, as did Virden and Walker’s (1999) research, that men demonstrated greater interest in wildlife and direct contact with the outdoors, and showed substantially less fear and indifference to wild animals (Kellert and Berry, 1984).

Bhatti and Church (2000) explore gendered meanings of contemporary gardens. In reviewing the literature, they conclude that for much of the twentieth century, the garden, particularly in working class households, was portrayed as the man’s domain and as a masculine source of leisure (Bhatti and Church, 2000). Yet their own work suggests that although men expressed a desire to control the garden by imposing their own personal order, for women the garden was a creative outlet, more so than inside the house (Bhatti and Church, 2000). Their findings show that for both genders gardening is a major leisure activity and that gardens have multiple meanings, including: as a private retreat; a social place for sharing; a connection to personal history; a reflection of one’s identity; and a status symbol (Bhatti and Church, 2000). Bhatti and Church (2000 p. 195) conclude ‘… that the garden often reveals hidden (or not so hidden) social relations and can be seen as a negotiated realm that highlights deeper gender relations.’ It is clear that the gender-nature relationship is complex, and that more work is needed to unravel this fascinating aspect of the human-nature relationship.

Children and nature

Humans’ perception of the natural world and the meanings they attach to nature are shaped by the influence of learning, culture and experience, despite their presumed biological origins (Kellert 2002). Kellert (2002) observes that there is a paucity of available literature on the role played by childhood contact with natural systems in character and personality formation. He comments that the literature that does exist almost exclusively employs the terms ‘ecology’ and ‘environment’ in considering family relationships, human social contexts, and the built rather than the natural environment (e.g. Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Kellert, 2002). Hence, the underlying assumption in the existing literature is that these are the predominant settings of modern childhood, or alternatively the more defining settings (i.e. more important). This assumption excludes the natural environment and its influence on human development entirely. As Kellert (2002, p.118) states, ‘.. .the relative absence of published material on this subject may be indicative of society so estranged from its natural origins it has failed to recognise our species’ basic dependence on nature as a condition of growth and development.’

So how does the natural environment affect childrens health and wellbeing? Tuan (1978) states that posed in this way the question is largely meaningless children’s health depends more on the quality of parental care, nutrition, access to medical services, and the socioeconomic environment than on whether they live surrounded by the built or the natural environment. As Tuan (1978) argues, in romanticising nature it is easy to forget that infant mortality is higher in many indigenous cultures that have close contact with the natural world than in developed countries where children live in almost entirely in urban environments. Nevertheless, this is most likely due to differences in culture, socioeconomic factors, access to and level of education, and access to health care services between richer and poorer nations. Any positive effects on the health and wellbeing of indigenous peoples obtained from contact with nature are likely to be ineffectual due to the dominance of these other factors. Yet, according to the
research presented in this review, the natural environment can and does have a positive impact on human health and wellbeing. Perhaps surprisingly however, there is not an expansive amount of scientific literature on children and youth and their relationships with the natural world. Despite this, there are some interesting publications that adopt an ecological or evolutionary approach.

Glenhaven Park June 2018

Heerwagen and Orians (2002) explore the ecological world of children. Their aim was to show how conditions experienced in ancestral environments still exert considerable pressure on humans today. Adopting an ecological-evolutionary perspective they predicted age-related patterns of behavioural responses to the environment or environmental stimuli. For example, as children develop physical skills and are able to gain some independence from the primary caregiver they begin to explore their environment (Heerwagen and Orians, 2002). In doing so, they should be motivated to seek out spaces that afford safety and protection, as children’s play at this age is highly focused on their activities and not on the surrounding environment (Heerwagen and Orians, 2002). But this type of play can leave them vulnerable to hostile people, animals, or other dangers (Heerwagen and Orians, 2002). As examples of natural refuges, Heerwagen and Orians (2002) describe a tree with a wide canopy, or a shrub open enough for a child to sit and play within it, while offering a view of the nearby surroundings. Heerwagen and Orians (2002) predict that young children, particularly of preschool age will seek out naturally occurring shelters in the environment and that older children (i.e. those old enough to attend school) will actively shape or construct shelters.

In fact, when playing outside research has shown that children do seek ‘refuge’ in certain elements found in the natural environment (Kirkby, 1989). Kirkby (1989) also predicted that children would engage in more dramatic and imaginative play in a natural refuge as opposed to a built refuge in school playgrounds. Her reasoning was that natural refuges offer a greater sense of enclosure and more opportunities to manipulate objects (Kirkby, 1989). She found that dramatic play ranged from 42% of the total play content in the built refuge to 68% in the natural refuge settings (Kirkby, 1989). Similarly, Heerwagen and Orians’ (2002) analysis of young children’s attraction to natural refuges in playgrounds showed that play behaviours in natural refuges differed significantly from play behaviours in built refuge or traditional playground equipment ((Heerwagen and Orians, 2002). They
cite evidence that natural refuges and natural materials (such as flowers, sticks and stones) facilitated long bouts of imaginary play, a behaviour known to have high social and cognitive benefits (Heerwagen and Orians, 2002).

In their overview of the literature, Heerwagen and Orians (2002) state that the design of day-care centres, playgrounds, schools, homes, and hospitals could benefit from a better understanding of children’s natural play behaviours. They state ‘Even a cursory investigation of schools and playgrounds shows that little has changed over the past 50 years. Children still sit in desks facing a teacher or sometimes in clusters of desks. And they still play in environments dominated by swings and slides or other fixed play equipment that does little to capture their imagination’ (Heerwagen and Orians, 2002 p.52). Disconnection from the natural environment has prompted some researchers to implore policy and other decision makers to remember their own youth (e.g. Nabhan and Trimble, 1994) and Louv (2005) has coined the phrase ‘nature-deficit disorder’ to capture ‘modern’
children’s lack of contact with nature.

Glenhaven Park Stockport

In terms of children’s contact with nature, Kellert (2002) has described three types of experiences—direct, indirect, and vicarious experiences. Kellert (2002) defines direct experiences with nature as actual physical contact with natural settings and nonhuman species (i.e. animals and plants). However, he restricts these direct encounters to creatures and environments occurring mostly outside and independent of the human built environment, where plants, animals, and ecosystems function without continuous human intervention and control. Kellert (2002 p.119) states ‘The child’s direct experience of nature is viewed as largely unplanned rather than formally organised into structured programs and activities…’ Examples of direct experience of nature are spontaneous play or activity in one’s backyard, in a nearby forest, creek, neighbourhood park, or vacant lot (Kellert, 2002) where the child is likely to encounter mostly native, wild species of plants, animals, and insects.

Kellert (2002) defines a child’s indirect experience of nature as involving actual physical contact but in more restricted, programmed, and managed contexts. Included here are examples of nature that are usually the product of deliberate and extensive human mastery and manipulation, such as animals, plants, and habitats encountered in zoos, aquariums, and botanical gardens (Kellert, 2002). Indirect experiences of nature also include domesticated species and habitats such as farm and companion animals (pets), vegetable gardens, and cultivated crops. As Kellert (2002) asserts these are all habitats and creatures dependent on (or the result of) extensive human intervention and control.

The final type of experience with nature described by Kellert (2002) is vicarious or symbolic experience. This is defined as ‘.representations or depicted scenes of nature that sometimes are realistic but that also, depending on circumstance, can be highly symbolic, metaphorical, or stylised characterisations’ (Kellert, 2002 p.119). This type of experience of nature has become more predominant in modern living through various technologies (such as books and other print media, radio, television, film, and computers) (Kellert, 2002). Yet, the depiction of the natural world through symbols is something that the human species has explored throughout our history, as supported by extensive archaeological and palaeontological evidence. Kellert (2002) argues that because humans have
symbolically experienced nature since ancient times this counters any inclination to treat vicarious experiences of nature as specific to modern humans. What has changed, however, is the proliferation of these images via technology and the mass media (Kellert, 2002). Furthermore, and perhaps more disconcerting is the concurrent decline in children’s direct experience with healthy and abundant natural systems’ (Kellert, 2002 p.120).

Some important research has been conducted on the potential effects of contact with nature on children’s health and wellbeing in a variety of contexts including the home and school environments. Wells and Evans (2003) examine the notion that nature might buffer or moderate the effects of stress or adversity in children living in rural upstate New York. Their research is part of a growing number of studies investigating children’s relationship with the natural environment and the potential for nature to positively influence child health. As Wells and Evans (2003) state, although some research has investigated the direct effects of nature on children’s functioning or wellbeing (e.g. Taylor, Kuo, and Sullivan, 2001; 2002; Wells, 2001; Taylor et al., 1998) very little work has investigated the potential for nature to buffer the effects of stress. Despite this, several studies have
demonstrated the positive effects of contact with nature on stress reduction and resilience to stress in adults (e.g. Parsons et al., 1998; Ulrich et al., 1991b).

Wells and Evans (2003) highlighted a number of studies demonstrating that
children have a preference for green natural settings. Included was a study by Moore (1986), who reported that 96% of urban children illustrated outdoor places when asked to make a map or drawing of all their favourite places. From this and other evidence, Wells and Evans (2003) state that it is reasonable to expect that green natural settings preferred by children would also have a beneficial effect on children’s wellbeing. In fact research in children has shown that children function better cognitively and emotionally in ‘green environments’ (i.e. those with higher amounts of vegetation) than those without (Taylor et al., 2001; Wells, 2000); have more creative play in ‘green areas’ (Taylor et al., 1998); and develop better interpersonal relationships and a more positive attitude to school (Crisp
and Aunger, 1998). Furthermore, other research has demonstrated that children have an abiding affiliation with nature, even in economically impoverished urban communities and across cultures (Kellert, 2002; Taylor et al., 1998; Kahn, 1997). Related work using companion animals and/or wilderness experiences to treat children and adolescents suffering from behavioural and/or psychological disorders has also indicated positive outcomes (Fawcett and Gullone, 2001; Ross, 1999; Crisp and Aunger, 1998; Beck and Katcher, 1996; Levinson, 1969).

Wells and Evans (2003) report however, that the majority of work investigating the beneficial effects of nature on children has been conducted since the mid- 1990s, and nearly all of this has been on children living in urban environments. Although this work is in the early stages there is significant incentive to explore the relationship that children have with the natural environment, and to look for ways this relationship can be used to maximise health and wellbeing. As Kellert (2002) writes, direct experience of nature plays a significant, vital, and perhaps irreplaceable role in affective, cognitive, and evaluative development but further study is needed.


As discussed above there are many ways of examining the human-nature
relationship, yet knowledge about our relationship with nature is still incomplete. Despite this, the importance of the natural environment is apparent across cultures and varying population groups. Overall, there is a strengthening perception that contact with nature is beneficial to adults and children alike, and is perhaps an antidote to health and wellbeing problems associated with an increasingly urbanised modern lifestyle. Some of the evidence is discussed in the following section titled ‘Health Benefits of Contact with Nature: The Evidence.’


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