As Canadians, we like to think of ourselves as nature-lovers and ambassadors for our beautiful natural resources. Think about the tourism commercials, consisting of vast forests, rushing rivers and swaying grasslands as a baritone voice describes the bountiful and beautiful landscape. With this scene in mind, it’s easy to imagine (or assume) that the majority of us regularly take advantage of our attractive outdoors.
However, according to the results of the 2017 Coleman Outdoor Report and Nature Conservancy of Canada Survey, I learned that, shockingly, nearly two-thirds of Canadians spend less than two hours outside each week and almost one-third of Canadians spend less than 30 minutes outside each day. These numbers are alarming for everyone, but also as someone who spends their days designing outdoor spaces, I’m frustrated. If almost everyone is spending the majority of their time indoors, who is enjoying the landscapes that we work so hard to create here at Nadi?
What’s interesting to point out, however, is the study also stipulates, “Nearly 90% of respondents said they felt happier and healthier when in nature.” So, what’s happening here? Why is the number of Canadians who spend time outside decreasing, while at the same time, Canadians are aware that nature makes us happier?
In 2018, I saw Canadian-Irish author and forest medicine expert Diana Beresford-Kroeger talk at Canadian Society ofLandscape Architects (CSLA) conference in Toronto. She rekindled my interest in the complexities of the forest and the psychological and biological effects the forest has on humans. It’s not entirely surprising that there is a strong relationship between happiness and nature. In a previous article written by Nadi's intern, Akum Maduka, she highlights the impact of landscape design on those who often experienced unsustainable conditions in hospitals because of their mental health. "Critical to this period was Samuel Tuke who proposed the idea of moral therapy by advocating "madness could be remedied not only by kindness but also by a proper atmosphere and environment".
An article found on the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) blog, the Dirt, discovered plenty of evidence on how public health and landscape have been intertwined from the beginning. Frederick Law Olmsted—popularly considered to be the father of American landscape architecture—started off his career as a public health official “sitting and planning of camps so soldiers wouldn’t get sick”.
Studies highlighted in the article illustrate the power of nature on cognitive abilities in children in school to hospital patients on recovery times, as well as how the percentage of canopy coverage on the street reduced stress levels. Yet, what I found interesting was the article's description of Jenny Roe’s research. Roe is an environmental psychologist, who did research in Edinburgh Scotland, and works at the University of Virginia School of Architecture. The article describes how she had a group of volunteers wear a device that measured alpha and beta brainwaves. While some volunteers walked a set path to a park, others wandered through an urban city landscape. One of the most shocking revelations of the study was that regardless of which route people took (the city or nature), “everyone’s stress levels were reduced after a 10 to 15-minute walk. In particular, for her older research subjects, the walk increased exposure to“nature, colour, wildlife, memories and social interaction”. For many people, the idea of becoming one with nature or even spending time outside takes form in a forest-like setting. Forest bathing, which means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses, is often what comes to mind. For myself, I was familiar with the benefits of ‘forest bathing’ such as reducing blood pressure and stress. However, the Dirt's article outlines that even walking in an urban setting can be beneficial.
As a landscape architect, this is good news. A lot of health and wellness articles, perhaps intentionally or not, equate nature and happiness with backpackers, looking down onto a valley after hiking a mountain. This image is highly problematic and inaccurate because it's not an honest or realistic depiction of people's lives. Furthermore, many landscape architects deal exclusively with urban situations, city parks and forests. The spaces most people can easily access, or already commute through on a daily basis. Not the hiking trails with a vista of the valley at the top, but the grove of trees next to the bike path.
Many disciplines need to work together to get people outside and make sure our cities are well-designed spaces that encourage community engagement and use. And we need to start treating landscape and trees with respect they deserve and not as an afterthought or a luxury. Access to well-designed urban soft and hard landscape has scientifically proven benefits to mental and physical health—and it should be a right and a priority for all of us.
If we design cities that provide opportunities for outside activity, and work in a holistic fashion to invest in people-first outdoor spaces, we create a healthy and thriving community. So, go outside!