A few weeks ago, I thumbed through a half a dozen magazines as I sat waiting for my doctor’s appointment. Each had at least one article about the environment. Most focused on climate change and protecting our fragile world, but one was decidedly different. Instead of the big global issues which can sometimes seem so overwhelming, it discussed how much being in nature benefits the individual.
As a teacher, I always emphasized that just passing your eyes over words was not reading. To truly read, you must analyze and evaluate the material. As I reflected on what I had read, the premise of the article seemed valid, but some unanswered questions nagged at me. I wondered exactly how much and what kind of green space is really required to maintain a strong connection to nature and to have a higher quality of life? Is it necessary to block out several hours a day to immerse oneself in the outdoors or does a five minute outdoor break suffice? Where does one need to be to fully experience nature? Must it be hours of walking through forests and meadows, or will just glancing at pots of plants and flowers on a patio satisfy the need for connection? In today’s busy world, these are important concerns.
As I scoured the research to satisfy my curiosity, I learned that there are no absolute, quantifiable answers that work for everyone. Experts agree that we do need time for green space to thrive both physically and mentally, but there is no standardized, recommended daily dosage of nature, at least not here in the United States. After considerable research however, I discovered that the Natural Resources Institute Finland does give a strong recommendation of at least five hours of nature a month to avert depression. They further suggest that the five hours a month be divided into multiple short visits, even as brief as 15 minutes, throughout the month for maximum benefits.
American researchers also agree that access to nature and participation in nature-based activities provide physiological, psychological, and sociological benefits to people of all age groups, from the youngest of children to the most senior of citizens. Unlike the Finnish researchers, they recommend no specific time frames. For many people, as few as five or ten minutes of some sort of involvement with nature produces dramatic physical and emotional change, while others respond more strongly to extended outdoor exposure. Regardless of time spent however, if the natural environment is approached with an open and positive attitude, then the experience is likely to be highly restorative.
Where one spends time with nature is also open to personal preference and circumstance. Although healing green spaces are often pictured as silent footpaths through awe-inspiring forests, sweeping mountain vistas or meandering streams and rivers, research shows that there is no “best” type or “required” amount of green space. The newest body of research suggests almost any green space–large or small, urban or rural–can have healing power for both body and mind if it serves the physical and emotional needs and expectations of the individual. Several studies conducted in urban areas correlate reduced blood pressure and stress hormones with simply looking out a window onto green space.
There are a few elements however, that seem to alter individuals’ perceptions of outdoor experiences. A study done in the 1980s found that crowded and overly chaotic plantings actually increased stress as the brain struggled to find meaningful patterns. Years later, a 2016 study at North Carolina State designed by Sonika Rawal, PhD built upon the earlier findings. It also concluded that the density of vegetation affected stress levels for study participants. This study showed that if more than 50% of the space was filled with extremely dense vegetation (picture overgrown Kudzu vine), then the subjects’ stress hormones began to sharply and quickly increase. Another American study charted a rise in stress hormones when subjects just looked at pictures of forests with thick, dark undergrowth.
The aesthetics of the green space also seem to play into the degree of well-being experienced. Studies point out that most subjects think that areas with broadleaf trees and significant biodiversity are high quality and therefore healthy green spaces. Additionally, if the three main sounds of nature– wind, water and birdsong–are present, then the space offers even greater stress reduction and wellness benefits.
The American Psychological Association’s 2017 report entitled Stress In America reported that stress levels in the United States are rising at a statistically significant rate. 80% of Americans indicate that they have experienced one or more symptoms of stress during the previous month. One-third of those reporting characterized themselves as anxious and another third as depressed. The fact that so many people experience high degrees of stress so often indicates that having places to reconnect and to calm ourselves are becoming a necessity rather than a luxury in modern day life.
Today it is possible to have instant access to the healing powers of nature within the confines of your own backyard. Experienced landscape professionals understand the need for peaceful personal space. Utilizing skillful naturalistic design techniques, they can create a personal green space that fulfills your personal expectations and meets your needs.