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15 January, 2020 10:49:24 AM

Ecology and mental health in our cities

We need to be far more specific about what “nature” we are talking about in design and planning to assist with mental health
Ecology and mental health in our cities

It's well-established that green spaces are good for our well-being. Now we can demonstrate that greater biodiversity boosts this benefit, as well as helping to sustain native plants and animals. Mental health in our cities is an increasingly urgent issue. Rates of disorders such as anxiety and depression are high. Urban design and planning can promote mental health by refocusing on spaces we use in our everyday lives in light of what research tells us about the benefits of exposure to nature and biodiversity.
Mental health issues have many causes. However, the changing and unpredictable elements of our physical and sensory environments have a profound impact on risk, experiences, and recovery. Urban designers thus have a significant role to play in lowering these rates of mental illness, and the data on how nature affects our brains are central to changing the ways we design. As depression is the world’s biggest cause of disability, we cannot afford to ignore the impact of public environments on mental health. Multiple stressors associated with city living have been shown to increase activity in the parts of the brain corresponding to the “flight or fight” response.
How does exposure to nature reduce these stresses? There are two enduring theories on how nature affects the brain. Both are based on nature having a restorative effect on cognitive and emotional function.
It is not emptiness or quiet, however, that has the effect. Nature in its messy, wild, loud, diverse, animal-inhabited glory has the most impact on restoring a stressed mind to a calm and alert state. This provides a more complete sense of “escape” from the urban world, however brief.

This idea is not new, nor is it surprising. Many people seek out nature to restore wellbeing, and multiple disciplines have sought to measure these restorative effects.

The result is more than 40 years of research quantifying specific neurological, cognitive, emotional and physiological effects of “nature” elements. These effects include increased calm and rumination, decreased agitation and aggression, and increased cognitive functioning – such as concentration, memory and creative thought.

What do we mean by ‘nature’?A large body of research has compellingly shown that “nature” in its many forms and contexts can have direct benefits on mental health. Unfortunately, the extent and diversity of natural habitats in our cities are decreasing rapidly.

Too often “nature” – by way of green space and “POS” (Public Open Space) – is still seen as something separate from other parts of our urban neighborhoods. Regeneration efforts often focus on large green corridors. But even small patches of genuinely biodiverse nature can re-invite and sustain multitudes of plant and animal species, as urban ecologists have shown.

It may not look like a pristine expanse of Amazon rainforest or an African savannah, but the patch of bush at the end of the street could be one of the only places on the planet that harbor a particular species of endangered animal or plant.

Several published global study of the conservation value of landscapes in 27 countries across four continents has found these small patches of habitat are critical to the long-term survival of many rare and endangered species. In Bangladesh, our cities are home to, on average, manifold times as many threatened species per unit area as rural environments. This means urbanization is one of the most destructive processes for biodiversity.

It tends to be the smaller patches of vegetation that go first, making way for a housing development, a freeway extension, or power lines. Despite government commitments to enhance the vegetation cover of urban areas and halt species extinction, the loss of vegetation in Australian cities continues.

This story plays out all over the world day after day. Of course, it’s not just an urban story. Patches of rural vegetation are continually making way for, say, a new pivot irrigation system or a new mine to provide local jobs.

Mostly, policymakers and scientists do not consider these losses to be, on their own, a fatal blow to the biodiversity of a region or country. Small, often isolated patches of vegetation are considered expendable, tradeable, of limited ecological value due to their small size and a relatively large amount of “edgy” habitat. Wrong.

The biodiversity-sensitive urban design makes more of local vegetation by complementing the natural remnant patches with similar habitat features in the built environment while delivering health and well-being benefits to residents. Urban development should be seen as an opportunity to enhance biodiversity through restoration, instead of an inevitable driver of species loss.

It has also been widely demonstrated that nature does not affect us in uniform or universal ways. Sometimes it can be confronting or dangerous. That is particularly true if nature is isolated or uninviting, or has unwritten rules around who should be there or what activities are appropriate.

These factors complicate the desire for a “nature pill” to treat urban ills.

We need to be far more specific about what “nature” we are talking about in design and planning to assist with mental health.

Why does biodiversity matter?The exponential accessibility and affordability of lab and mobile technologies, such as fMRI and EEG measuring brain activity, have vastly widened the scope of studies of mental health and nature. Researchers are able, for example, to analyze responses to images of urban streetscapes versus forests. They can also track people’s perceptions “on the move”. Research shows us biodiverse nature has a particular positive benefit for mental well-being. Multi-sensory elements such as bird or fog sound or wildflowers smells have well-documented beneficial effects on mental restoration, calm and creativity.

Other senses – such as our sense of ourselves in space, our balance and equilibrium, and temperature – can also contribute to us feeling restored by nature.  Acknowledging the crucial role all these senses play shifts the focus of urban design and planning from visual aesthetics and functional activity to how we experience natural spaces. This is particularly important in ensuring we create places for people of all abilities and neurodiversity.

Neuroscientific research also shows an “enriched” environment – one with multiple diverse elements of interest – can prompt movement and engagement. This helps keep our brains cognitively healthy, and as happier. The health and ecology research literature brims with examples of the positive effects of nature on well-being. Exposure to nature helps us recover from stress and mental fatigue and restores concentration. Lower blood pressure, improved concentration and more positive emotions are identified when people go for a walk in a natural environment compared with an urban environment.

Attention Restoration Theory (ART) explains that restoration requires a different experience – such as “getting away” – in an environment that is together interesting, non-threatening and realistic. If you have spent your morning in a meeting room or office, a park with trees and perhaps a pond or fountain is about as different as you can get.  What supports well-being in cities?We have witnessed that identified the aspects of urban environments that support human well-being. Being able to move safely around a city (walkable space) and enabling space for social interaction are known factors of good urban design. Green space is another factor that, for the reasons discussed above, is important to ensure we can survive in cities.

We add biodiversity and ecosystem services to the equation as both are necessary if we are also to thrive in cities. Without sufficient biodiversity, the nature we encounter may not be realistic enough for a successful restorative experience, according to ART. Biodiversity can also keep species in check – for example, reducing the numbers of animal vectors of disease such as mosquitos and ticks.

Ecosystem services are critical to our survival. More than the air we breathe and the water we drink, when ecosystems fail, this has serious consequences for human well-being. Environmental degradation has been found to affect people who work in rural environments, but cities are already degraded landscapes. Urban nature has never been more important.

If you are considering how to spend an hour working in nature this week but your calendar is hectic and you are facing a wall of meetings, don’t despair. You could even benefit from nature just by glancing at it. In a recent Australian study, a glance of a green roof has been found to be more restorative than a glance at a concrete roof.

Working with nature is not limited to sitting in a lush garden with your laptop. A walking meeting through a landscaped area, which would provide the added benefits of exercise, or even a glance at a natural view might help you to recover from your day’s stress.

The Work with Nature campaign has another function: to remind decision-makers that we need nature in our cities. There are many forms it might take. An atrium or view from your office has the potential to help you function more effectively at work, but a large inner-city park offers us a realistic green space that provides the full benefits of nature.

Beyond brain imaging of experiences in nature, there is growing and compelling evidence that contact with diverse microbiomes in the soil and air has a profound effect on depression and anxiety. Increasing our interaction with natural elements through touch – literally getting dirt under our nails – is both psychology therapeutic and neurologically nourishing.

We also have increasing evidence that air, noise and soil pollution increasesthe risk of mental health disorders in cities.

What does this mean for urban neighborhoods?These converging illustrations suggest biodiverse urban nature is a priority for promoting mental health. The job as designers and planners is therefore to multiply opportunities to interact with these areas in tangible ways.

The concept of “biophilia” isn’t new. But a focus on incidental and authentic biodiversity helps us apply this very broad, at times unwieldy and non-contextual, concept to the local environment.This grounds effort in real-time, achievable interventions.

Using novel technologies and interdisciplinary research expands our understanding of the ways our environments affect our mental well-being. This knowledge challenges the standardized planning of natural spaces and monoculture plantings in our cities. Neuroscience can, therefore, support urban designers and planners in allowing for more flexibility and authenticity of nature in urban areas.

Neuroscientific evidence of our sensory encounters with biodiverse nature points us towards the ultimate win-win (-win) for ecology, mental health, and cities.

The writer is

Former Head, Department of Medical Sociology,

Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control & Research (IEDCR)

Dhaka, Bangladesh




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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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