Measuring What Works for Healthy Green Spaces— Washington, D.C.-Baltimore, Md.: The Mechanisms and Design Elements of Restorative Experiences

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Six projects received this distinguished national award for researching the transformational power of nature in urban settings. Each project was chosen for combining the creation of tranquil, restorative spaces with rigorous study of their impact on users’ well-being and resilience. See the full list of projects here. Print version of poster. 

While a body of evidence has shown that nature improves health outcomes and cognitive functioning, the missing link is still why these effects occur. Measuring What Works for Healthy Green Spaces aims to determine what it is about nature that has such tremendous effects on our brains and our health and create guidelines for the future design of natural spaces.

Head researcher Marc Berman, PhD, of the University of South Carolina asked, “Is it as simple as nature has more of the color green? Or is it something more complicated, that nature has more fractal patterns in it and that’s why nature [experiences] might be restorative?”

Unlike many of the other projects that have received Nature Sacred Awards, Measuring What Works for Healthy Green Spaces will study the effects of nature on cognitive functioning without constructing or even visiting a natural space. Instead, study participants will be shown images of different design elements from many of the TKF Foundation’s regional, Mid-Atlantic Open Spaces Sacred Places. The impact of these design elements will then be measured through a combination of fMRI brain imaging, cortisol assays and journal analysis.

Beyond determining the elements of nature that have a positive impact on cognitive functioning, the project has farther-reaching implications. “We’re going to try to use these results to inform the future design of natural spaces in urban areas,” said Berman.

Eventually, the results of the study could influence policy members to understand the economic benefits of building nature into cities. “There’s a grander application where, if we can really quantify these things, we can put a dollar value on how much nature really benefits us and that might impact where we allocate monetary resources,” Berman explained.

Finally, the award gives the research team the chance to study and evaluate the positive benefits of nature in a quantitative way. “What I think is really important about this grant, and all the projects, is that the more traditional funding avenues are not quite ready to fund projects that look at how nature can be beneficial to us,” noted Berman. “What is really critical about the award from the TKF Foundation is that it will help lay a foundation for this field, making it less of an outlying field of inquiry and spurring additional research.”