One of the many things that has helped keep me sane and grounded this past year has been religiously getting out of the house and spending time in nature. Thankfully, because I live in California, I have the benefit of sunny and inviting weather most of the year. I’m also fortunate to live in a neighborhood connected to a 6,000-acre regional park, making it easy and convenient to go for short walks or long hikes in the hills. And a 30-inch-deep, blow-up pool I purchased online at the start of the COVID-19 quarantine allowed me to float away the weekends all summer long. I haven’t spent so much time outdoors since I was a kid. During these times, I frequently find myself reciting a favorite quote from biologist and author Rachel Carson: “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
And I’m not the only one feeling these effects. Over the last few months—as we’ve all spent more times indoors and isolated from others—I’ve seen more and more written in the general press about the benefits of nature on health and mental well-being, frequently highlighting practices from other countries where that connection is celebrated as a part of their culture. For example, in Japan, “shinrin-yoku” or “forest bathing,” which is a physiological and psychological practice of physically spending time in forests, is used to help counter the daily stresses of a fast-paced, high-stressed lifestyle. In fact, doctors prescribe shinrin-yoku as part of their treatment plans. In Scandinavian countries, “friluftsliv,” which literally translates to “free, air, and life” or more clearly “outdoor lifestyle,” is deeply embedded in the Norwegian way of life. It’s one of many things that researchers credit as to why Norway is consistently ranked as one of the world’s happiest countries.
The 2019 study “Spending 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing,” published in Scientific Reports, not only validated what so many cultures innately know but quantified exactly how much time one needs to spend outdoors to reap the benefits. The research, which involved 20,000 people, found that those who spent a minimum of two hours a week in green spaces or surrounded by other natural elements were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who didn’t. Researchers saw no benefits in those who spent less than two hours of time outdoors.
This connection between nature and health has long been a part of The Center for Health Design’s work. Roger Ulrich, author of the classic 1984 study on the impact of views through a window on recovery post-surgery, was a founding member of The Center’s board. In the mid-1990s, The Center funded the first rigorous post-occupancy evaluation ever done of hospital gardens, conducted by Clare Cooper Marcus and Marni Barnes, which connected the incorporation of gardens and other landscape features in designs to the health benefits of patients, visitors, and staff, as well as the financial benefits to an organization.
Integrating nature into our built environments has never been more important than it is today, for both our communities and our workspaces. These benefits go well beyond being differentiators to being vitally important components of both built environments and clinical treatment plans. Equally important, they provide respite space for staff that offers an opportunity for physical and emotional restoration.
Thankfully, there are a plethora of books and resources available to provide inspiration and roadmaps for healthcare providers and designers. In the Insights and Solutions section of The Center’s website, a large selection of webinars, interviews, project briefs, and more can be found that demonstrate the connection between nature and health and highlight innovative examples of how it’s been incorporated into a variety of healthcare projects. Our Knowledge Repository has more than 100 research citations on the topic, almost half of which have corresponding key point summaries. And, for even more inspiration, visit the Therapeutic Landscapes Network (healinglandscapes.org) for a wide variety of resources as well as a guide to projects in your area.
As the weather gets nicer and the days grow longer, treat yourself to more time outdoors. You may just find yourself not only healthier but less stressed, sleeping better, and in a much happier mood.
Debra Levin is president and CEO of The Center for Health Design. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.