A holistic, optimistic approach to health supports productive individuals, and livable communities where people can thrive.
Health is not simply an absence of disease or infirmity, but is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being. Wholesome living environments integrate the opportunities of built, social, natural, and (increasingly) online components to help people be at their best. One important aspect of health – mental function and wellness – is not only the outcome of personal and lifestyle situations, but is highly dependent on the natural and built environments that surround a person.
The World Health Organization (WHO) describes mental health as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community. Each person’s health, specifically mental health and wellness, is intricately integrated with the social and built environments around them.
What does it mean for “every individual to realize his or her own potential”? And how does the built, natural environment contribute to this? Ideas to spark your interest, highlighted below, are available from Reflect and Restore: Urban Green Space for Mental Wellness. This research brief, authored by Kathleen Wolf and Elizabeth Housley, is part of a research collection from the TKF Foundation’s Nature Sacred initiative.
Decades ago Abraham Maslow described the concept of a hierarchy of human needs. The general concept is that people have basic needs such as food, water, and shelter. Once these needs are satisfied, a person, through learning, work, constructive action, and relationships with other people, ascends a series of stages to self-actualization. This pursuit of one’s potential is not necessarily step-wise. Research since Maslow has shown humans can “move” up and down and side to side in the hierarchy. We pursue acts of creativity or social interactions that support one’s self-esteem while we learn and struggle.
Encounters with nearby nature, such as volunteering in a park, can satisfy both basic and more abstract human needs. Sustenance from community gardens and happiness from community engagement is just one example of this combo.
• Urban nature, when incorporated into community planning and building design, provides calming and inspiring environments and can encourage learning, inquisitiveness, and alertness.
• When walking through a city park and retail areas, research participants wearing mobile EEG technology showed brain wave evidence of lower frustration and higher meditation when in green space versus the commercial space. Green space provides more opportunities for happy, positive mental states. Happiness, or the presence of a positive emotional mindset, broadens how a person thinks about and acts in the daily flow of life’s efforts, creating positive intellectual and psychological resources.
• Findings in medical research support the benefits of mindfulness activities. During relaxing activities in public green spaces such as light walking, tai-chi, yoga, meditation, and exercise, even prayer and belief, the brain shifts from releasing stress hormones to the production of endorphins and dopamine. It is suggested that green spaces heighten the potential benefit of these healthful activities.
• Contact with nature helps children develop cognitive, emotional, and behavioral connections to their nearby social and biophysical environments. Nature experiences encourage imagination and creativity, support feelings of self-worth, aid cognitive and intellectual development, enhance ability to concentrate and exercise self-discipline, and encourage positive social relationships.
• People who are confident that interactions with other people will be positive are more likely to commit to community-wide improvements and redevelopment programs. It has even been suggested that more social cities breed more creativity as a rapid exchange of ideas flows from both dense interactions and loose connections among residents. Public, open green space provides a free, inclusive place for these interactions.