How landscapes help heal our physical and mental health

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When my grandmother moved back from Silver Spring, Maryland, to Kano, Nigeria, she formed a habit of spending time alone every afternoon in our kitchen courtyard. The courtyard is a heavily planted space, boasting a large trellis covered in grapevines and many other surrounding plant species, where she would sit for hours either reading her prayer book or fanning herself while she watched the birds chirp and the Agama lizards crawl past her.

When sunset came, she would fill up a watering can, and make sure every single plant was sufficiently watered. I had observed this for some time and out of curiosity, asked why she’d made this a daily routine and why she wouldn’t let the housekeepers do their job. She barely ever said much, but to my amazement, she spoke passionately about the courtyard. She expressed a powerful emotional attachment to this space, stemming from her childhood. She told me she found spiritual peace in the courtyard and felt exponentially better there than when she was prescribed various medications for depression and other ailments by doctors while living in the United States. This is not to disparage the medical practice or the use of drugs. Both are necessary to helping people alleviate pain or cope with physical and mental illnesses. Nevertheless, our natural environment can also act as a prophylactic against illnesses and moderate causes as well as act as a complement to prescribed medication.

This anecdote about my grandmother can be seen as an illustration of man’s constant search for our place within nature. Our perception of landscapes as places that go beyond providing the basic necessities for life (i.e. food and water) to a place of contemplation and healing. The reoccurring theme of the natural world being a place of healing dates as far back as tales of the heavenly gardens that are intimately linked with the ideal landscape––the landscape of life––in numerous cultures and religions where human beings are untouched by illness. What this seems to suggest, as described by Thompson in Linking Landscape and Health: The Recurring Theme, is that we can design landscapes to encourage engagement with nature and provide mental relaxation that can offer relief from stress.

However, throughout history, the role of certain spaces in relation to ongoing experiences of mental distress, care and recovery, have been questioned and have also revealed societies’ stigmatization towards mental health-related issues and those who live with them. Dating as far back as the 19th century, sites that catered to those living with mental illness were argued to be “heterotopias of control"––a concept philosopher Michel Foucault used to describe spaces located within a society, which are ordered differently in terms of both their time and space . In general, they are physical representations or enactments of a utopia (e.g. Oscar Niemeyer’s city of Brasilia), or a parallel space that contains unwanted bodies to make a real utopian space possible (e.g. an asylum, prison, cemetery) . The constraints of these official mental health service sites and the policies that govern them have had severe implications relating to social inclusion as they have resulted in both an increase of people diagnosed with mental health problems who are incarcerated and an increase in hospital admissions and supported housing .

We find ourselves at the edge of significant transition where mental illness––although still stigmatized––is gaining awareness and gradually becoming an important topic of discussion in contemporary society. As designers, this challenges us to find effective ways to improve our designs and create multifunctional spaces that inspire a sense of community, promote active lifestyles and reduce environmental stressors and issues relating to social inequality. With that being said, some important questions we might ask ourselves, as designers are: how do we design “people first places” that cater to not just select members of society but underrepresented groups as well? What types of landscape/environmental design interventions might we propose to benefit and support mental wellbeing and to what extent will these proposed interventions vary across populations?

Over the years we have observed continuous urbanization of human environments, and the consequences that follow such as congestion, climate change, constant strain of the human nervous system as a result of poor air quality, harsh noises and the very obvious eye-exhausting sights (buildings, parking lots and other grey spaces). Even those who have sound health––in the long run––through repeated exposure to these stressors are prone to breakdown and far worse are the consequences for the fragile who make up a higher fraction of city dwellers.

It’s evident that part of the environmental threats we face today are a result of our poor design and neglect. Natural disasters and health crises/epidemics serve as constant reminders of the fragility of humankind’s engineering and the importance of landscape planning and design to provide therapeutic places for people . It’s within this similar predicament that the public parks movement, which started in the 1830s, emphasized the creation of public parks and green spaces to improve health in the over-crowded conditions of rapidly growing industrial towns . Although the focus was less about the emotional and psychological benefits of the landscape, public parks were seen as places that promoted physical wellbeing and spiritual renewal of the urban working class .

The history of the association and benefits of public space on the physical and mental wellbeing of society is vast; it implores us as designers to reflect on our role within society and the need to take the health implications of landscape architecture, architecture and proper urban planning seriously. The way we build, plan and design our cities today; its neighbourhoods, streets and parks are likely to affect the mental wellbeing of both present and future generations.

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