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

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