American biologist, researcher, theorist, naturalist, and author Edward O. Wilson introduced in his book Biophilia (1984) the hypothesis that we, as humans, have an innate need to connect with other living beings and nature herself. Biophilia is “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. Being in nature, parks, green spaces, by the water, and actual wilderness does the body, mind, and spirit good. Overwhelming evidence shows this. We need nature to be healthy, productive, and happy.
So the question is – how much nature do we need?
How much nature a person needs depends on many factors, including the person’s innate resilience, love/hate of nature, level of stress, support network, and general health and wellbeing. Florence Williams in her book The Nature Fix : Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative travels the world, hangs out with researchers, and looks at different global data points, approaches, initiatives, and successes.
The essential take home – go outside, as much as possible. The research1 does show that we benefit from being in nature, cognitively and psychologically.
Tanya Denckla-Cobb of the University of Virginia came up with the Nature Pyramid as the recommendation for a “nature diet”. Her colleague Tom Beatley came up with a graphic version of the Nature Pyramid.
The Nature Pyramid is a recommendation for optimal health. Starting at the bottom, we have the daily doses to help relieve stress and fatigue, what we can easily find at home and around our neighbourhood like pets, house plants, fresh air, blue sky, tree-lined sidewalks, parks, birds, etc. Be outside for part of the day, every day. Walk to work or the bus stop through the park; choose a green path as much as possible. Unplug and see the flowers, the trees, the birds, and other animals. Take what Florence Williams call “quick incursions to engage the senses.”
Her research also found that access to a safe, clean, and quiet natural green space in the city boosts people’s wellbeing. Short exposures help us to be “less aggressive, more creative, more civic-minded, and healthier overall.” For those who suffer from spring fever, head for water. Forests and waters are what we yearn for.
As we move up the pyramid, the types of green spaces recommended move toward the natural environment and wilderness. Explore places where signs of urban living such as the sounds of traffic disappear. Do this for at least one hour a week. To ward off depression, try a minimum of five hours a month in nature. Once a year or biyearly, a longer and more intense immersion in the wilderness is extremely beneficial, more regular for those experiencing or recovering from extreme distress. The degree of wilderness will depend on the person since constantly being bitten by mosquitos or stressed about potential bear encounters is anything but relaxing and awe-inspiring. Choose expanse and vastness to bring on awe, that feeling that connects us to the greater world.
One of the many places Florence Williams spent time for her research was Singapore, where she learned from the Director of Parks Development Yeo Meng Ton spends 200 million per year to “develop scenery”. A goal is to have 80% of the population live within 400m of green space. The current estimate is at an impressive 70%.
Singapore’s identity as a garden city extends beyond tree-lined streets, parks, nature reserves, and foodscaping trends. Biophilic design can be found in architecture, such as the community hospital Khoo Teck Puat where many rooms face a garden courtyard and where produce from the rooftop organic vegetable garden feed patients and get sold at farmers’ markets. One of Singapore’s gems is Gardens by the Bay where Florence Williams was blown away by the technobiophilic offerings.
For her, at the end of the day, “real nature, the kind we evolved in, incorporates entropy, blood, high winds, a beating, pulsing geophony. In Singapore, nature more or less looked like nature, but it didn’t sound like nature. It didn’t act like nature.”2 She does point out that since Singaporeans did not grow up in a wilder environment, they still fare rather well with what is available in one of the greenest cities in the world. For those who grew up regularly hiking and camping, venturing further afield is essential to satisfy their biophilic needs. Luckily for these expat residents and Singaporeans yearning for nature, Singapore is surrounded by easily-accessible islands and is a stone’s throw away from many rainforests.
As society urbanizes and moves away from nature, we yearn for it even more. By 2008, we became what some term “metro sapiens” with the majority of the human population living in cities. Too many people in too little space leads to negative effects such as an increase in mood and anxiety disorders and increased activity in the parts of the brain that deal with fear and stress.
The nature diet is especially important for adolescents, especially those diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Or do they actually suffer from what journalist Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder”?
According to The Nature Fix an astounding number of preschoolers in the US are on ADHD medication. The diagnose statistics in Finland are similar; the difference, they do not medicate. The wonders of the Finnish education system have been shared and highlighted in recent years, highlighting how much play and outside time (despite the weather) Finnish kids spend every day. Exercise and exploratory play enhance cognitive and emotional development and physical activity has been shown to have a wide range of benefits from increased verbal and mathematic ability and IQ to perceptual skills.
Food for thought – a 20-year study of 750 children by Pennsylvania State University showed the importance of early social skills over academic skills in future success.
The Nature Pyramid is not prescriptive. It is what Tim Beatley calls a menu so peruse the choices available to you and try it out and see how exposure to and immersion in nature boosts your health and wellbeing. Like our diet, diversity is key. It is not possible, for a variety of reasons, for many to travel far for deeper and enriching experiences. As our lives become more urbanized, boosting our daily nature nutrients through more engaging daily interactions in action is more important. For Tim Beatley,
“these fleeting and fragmentary episodes of a green urban life are valuable and indeed make up the bulk of my daily nature experiences. The Pyramid helps us appreciate the valuable exposure to many smaller green features and nature episodes in the course of a day.”3
1 Check out this article – Seeing Green: The Importance of Nature for Our Health – for a variety of studies on the Mother Earth News website.
2 Florence Williams. The Nature Fix. p249
3 Tim Beatley. Exploring the Nature Pyramid.