There’s something about green spaces – gardens, forests, prairies, etc… – that calls to us to approach, to touch, and to explore. They effortlessly hold our attention, while also setting us free of stresses and worries. There’s a theory called the biophilia hypothesis, developed by Edward O. Wilson, that proposes our love of nature and other life forms is part of our evolutionary history and genetic makeup. We are attracted to life (animals and plants) because they support our life and have historically suggested a potential for food. We have evolved over time with a deep connection with nature and though the industrial age has largely shifted us away from nature, we potentially still have this internal urge to connect and subconsciously recognize its benefits to our lives. It’s in an interesting theory and may explain why the rustle of leaves, the rolling waves, and the crunch of a path beneath our feet seem to inherently draw us outside.
As I type this post I can look out two windows. One window gives me a view of a yew hedge (but first I have to look through a palm that has miraculously lived through our neglect and a kalanchoe which is still flowering and brightening up the window ledge). The other window is behind me and I have to look through another designer’s space – hi Tim! – to see the flower yard beyond. (Tim’s desk is also where we are trying to make our own kombucha, though so far with no success. He’s attempting to revive the scoby, wish us luck. In a way, I’m surrounded by nature!) These views create such a longing within me to go outside that it is not uncommon to take a break and walk the yard when the weather is nice.
Studies suggest that these spaces offer more to us than just pretty places to look at and that they in fact have measurably beneficial impacts on our lives. A few months ago, I was at the University of Illinois career fair at the Morton Arboretum and prior to the students coming in to talk to all the companies attending, we heard a lecture from William Sullivan, the head of the Landscape Architecture department at UIUC. He spoke about the landscape’s effect on human health, especially in terms of recovering from stress and mental fatigue (the ability to pay attention). The studies he’s done suggest that small, regular doses of interacting with the environment reduces stress and speeds up your body’s recovery from stress. Because the environment draws you attention involuntarily, think of how breezes, flames of a fire, ocean waves, birds flying, etc… seem to be hypnotizing, you don’t expend any effort to engage with them and so you don’t become fatigued. In comparison, your directed attention at focusing on work, a lecture, driving in traffic, etc… takes a lot of effort and you do become fatigued after a relatively short amount of time. This Attention Restoration Theory (ART) suggests that you can restore your mental fatigue by spending time in nature, or even by looking at scenes of nature, because you are no longer putting in the effort to focus. Medical patients recover better and quicker, students do better in their studies, and employees are better able to handle stress and interact with their peers calmly.
Sullivan went as far as to say that one study suggested that a 40 minute walk through a natural environment, like a trail in a forest preserve, had a similar effect as a dose of Ritalin on restoring attention. That’s incredible! Obviously, don’t stop taking your medications and go take walk outside instead, but it’s an interesting idea that in some scenarios, and for some people, taking a step away from what they’re doing that’s causing the stress and fatigue and reconnecting with nature can have that measurably beneficial impact. Think of what happens when you go home, sit in your own garden space, and relax. I’m feeling relaxed already thinking about it.
We certainly enjoy the beauty of nature and a well-designed garden, but these spaces are more than a pretty place. The pictures below are from a garden space that we designed and installed for JourneyCare (formerly Midwest Palliative and Hospice CareCenter). In the most stressful of situations, a garden’s ability to weave even a moment of serenity is something to not be overlooked and disregarded. We are fortunate to be in the business of bringing smiles to peoples’ faces, peace to their hearts, and calmness to their minds.