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

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