Health Benefits of Being in and Cultivating Nature

Both looking at nature and engaging with iti.e., gardening, caring for indoor plants, etc.have positive effects on human stress, general psychology, and physical well-being. First researched in the 1980s, a whole host of studies have since evidenced these benefits. Contact with the natural environment can boost our immune systems, decrease blood pressure, speed up recovery from physically and psychologically traumatic events, relieve mental fatigue, limit the release of stress hormones like cortisol, improve our mood, and so much more. In this post, we consider the physical, emotional, and mental health benefits of communing with the natural environment in urban settings. Whether spending time outdoors in a curated green space or indoors with houseplants, connection with the natural world can make an enormous difference. Read on to learn more.

Ecopsychology: How Immersion in Nature Benefits Human Health

Much of what we will discuss throughout this article is rooted in ecopsychology. Ecopsychology is an interdisciplinary field that explores the relationship between human beings and the natural world through the integration of ecological and psychological principles. The term “ecopsychology” was popularized in the 1990s, but the ideas it encompasses have deeper roots across various cultures and philosophies.

At its core, ecopsychology posits that humans are deeply influenced by and inherently connected to the natural environment. This connection is not just physical but also psychological, emotional, and spiritual. It suggests that a close relationship with nature is essential for human well-being and that nature can have therapeutic effects.

Ecopsychology also argues the opposite: that the degradation of natural environmentsthrough deforestation, pollution, and climate changecan have adverse effects. Destroying natural environments can result in compromised physical health and poor mental health outcomes. It can cripple natural ecosystems and threaten all the living beings within them. Conversely, the health of the environment can be influenced by human psychological and cultural factors.

Ecopsychology tends to adopt a holistic perspectiverecognizing that the mind, body, and environment are interconnected and interdependent. It seeks to understand our innate connection to the natural world and how this has evolved throughout time.

For example, ecopsychology examines how different cultures across historical periods have understood and related to nature. This includes indigenous perspectiveswhich often emphasize a deep spiritual connection to the land.

In today’s society, the need for mixed-income housing has become increasingly evident. Mixed-income housing refers to the development of neighborhoods or buildings that offer a range of affordable options for people with different income levels.

As outlined below, mixed-income housing offers a variety of benefits to both high and low-income residents. It can promote economic diversity, lift property values, improve each demographic’s upward mobility, and alleviate concentrated poverty that many areas suffer from as a consequence of redlining in the 20th century.

Ecopsychology in Practice

Some therapists base their practices on ecopsychology or draw from its tenets when caring for patientsusing nature as a tool or co-therapist. This can involve outdoor therapy sessions, wilderness therapy, or simply encouraging patients to spend more time in nature.

For example, horticultural therapists use plants, gardens, and gardening activities as therapeutic tools to improve an individual’s physical, mental, emotional, and social well-being. This therapeutic approach integrates the nurturing qualities of nature with traditional therapeutic modalities to achieve specific therapeutic goals.

Effects of Exposure to Nature on Human Stress, Physical Wellbeing, and Psychology

While ecopsychology typically advocates for complete immersion, people can reap many benefits of communing with nature through green space exposure, caring for houseplants, gardening at home, looking at photographs of the natural world, and simply gazing out their windows. Let’s explore the effects of exposure to nature on everything from our immune system to our mental health.

Physical Health Effects

Nature connectedness offers a wide range of physical health benefitsall backed by extensive scientific research. As far back as 1984, studies have found that exposure to nature could influence recovery from illness and injury, help people deal with chronic disease, and produce other beneficial effects on physical well-being.

Roger Ulrich’s 1984 study showed that surgical patients with a view of nature from their hospital rooms had shorter postoperative hospital stays, took fewer analgesics, and had slightly fewer post-surgical complications compared to those with a view of a brick wall. In this article for Scientific American, health reporter Deborah Franklin writes that Ulrich’s follow-up studies conducted during the 1990s confirmed earlier findings.

According to Franklin, heart surgery patients who were given simulated views of a “Water and tree scene were less anxious and needed fewer doses of strong pain medicine than those who looked at the darker forest photograph, abstract art, or no pictures at all.”

Quoting UC Berkeley professor Clare Cooper Marcus, Franklin acknowledges that “‘Spending time interacting with nature in a well-designed garden won’t cure your cancer or heal a badly burned leg.'” However, it can reduce stress and other negative emotions, which can help improve your immune system function.

Recent Studies on the Positive Physical Impacts of Exposure to Nature

Since the 1990s, many other studies have demonstrated the positive impact nature exposure has on physical health. For example, this 2018 study published in the Journal of Environmental Research found that exposure to green spaces can “Reduce the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, and high blood pressure.”

Exposure offers benefits to those living in both natural and urban environments. This 2010 study published in the Journal of Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine explored the concept of shinrin-yoku or forest bathing. It found that spending time in forests can enhance the activity of the types of cells that fight infections and illnesswhich is beneficial for individuals with compromised immune systems.

An earlier study published in 2003 showed that living in areas with green spaces is associated with a lower incidence of a wide range of chronic diseases. These diseases include COPD, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

Psychological Benefits

Exposure to nature also boasts many psychological benefits. It can improve cognition, help those with depression, and aid stress recovery. Some of the first studies conducted on this topic were published back in 1989. In their book The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective, environmental psychology professors Rachel and Stephen Kaplan discussed the concept of “attention restoration theory.” Their theory suggested that nature could help individuals with attention deficit disorders by restoring their ability to focus.

Studies have also shown that exposure to nature can support people with other psychiatric disorders. For example, this 2012 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that interacting with nature can benefit cognitive function and mental well beingespecially for individuals with depression. Participants who took a nature walk demonstrated better memory compared to those who walked in an urban environment. Published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing, this study‘s researchers found that therapeutic horticulture can reduce symptoms of depression and improve perceived attentional capacity in individuals with clinical depression.

Stresswhich compounds both mental and physical health issuescan be reduced through nature exposure, too. A 2002 study found that the more often a person visits urban green spaces, the less often they report stress-related illnesses. Outcomes of the study suggest that urban green spaces can be used as a resource in rehabilitation for individuals with stress-related disorders. This systematic review of the 2002 study and others expands upon Stigsdotter’s initial research.

Health Inequalities in Urban Areas with Green Infrastructure vs Those Without

Human health outcomes in urban areas can be significantly influenced by the presence or absence of green infrastructure. Green infrastructure refers to a network of parks, trees, and other natural elements that provide ecological, economic, and social benefits.

Positive Impacts of Abundant Green Infrastructure

In this 2021 study, researchers note that “Green infrastructure in the form of parks, street trees, and other urban vegetation can buffer against health disparities for conditions such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, psychological distress, and heat-related illness.” There are a few ways in which urban green spaces improve human health.

Urban areas with green infrastructure like parks, tree-lined sidewalks, trails, and other natural outdoor spaces encourage recreational activitywhich can lead to improved cardiovascular health for residents. Trees and plants also act as natural air filtersabsorbing pollutants and improving air qualitywhich can reduce respiratory problems.

As noted above, exposure to green spaces can reduce symptoms of depression and anxietyas can the social opportunities posed by shared green spaces. These spaces offer communal areas where residents can interactfostering a sense of community, producing positive social interactions, and reducing feelings of isolation.

Negative Impacts of Limited Green Infrastructure

Alternatively, residents of neighborhoods without green infrastructure tend to experience worse health outcomes. From a physical health perspective, lack of green spaces can discourage residents from engaging in outdoor exerciseleading to sedentary lifestyles and associated health issues.

Without vegetation to filter pollutants, air quality can deteriorateincreasing respiratory and cardiovascular problems. When there is no green infrastructure to provide shade and cooling, urban areas can become significantly hotter than surrounding rural areasincreasing heat-related health risks.

From a psychological perspective, urban areas without green spaces can be more stressful due to noise, congestion, and lack of natural views. The absence of natural environments can also contribute to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders. Lack of communal spaces also limits social interaction.

Effects on the Environment

Preserving natural spaces and rewilding urban environments not only boosts human health. It can also improve outcomes for animals and plants by reducing water and air pollution, limiting the heat island effect, and providing functional ecosystems for native flora and fauna. This can increase biodiversitywhich benefits us all. Let’s take a closer look.

Habitat Restoration and Species Protection

Green spaces can restore habitats that have been lost due to urbanization or other human activities, allowing native species to thrive. Rewilding can help protect endangered species by providing them with suitable habitats and reducing human interference.

It also promotes natural processes like predation and pollination. Rewilding can reintroduce predatorswhich can naturally control pest populations while also attracting pollinators. Pollinators are essential for many plants and crops. In some cases, green spaces, trees, and landscaping features like berms can reduce noisewhich creates a calmer environment for plants, animals, and people.

Carbon Sequestration

Trees and vegetation in green spaces absorb and store carbon dioxidereducing the harmful effects of climate change. Plus, green spaces in urban areas can reduce the need for air conditioning in nearby buildingswhich limits energy consumption and emissions.

Air and Water Quality Improvement

Trees and plants also act as natural air filtersremoving harmful pollutants and improving air quality. Green spacesespecially wetlandscan act as natural water filters. They reduce pollutants in waterways and improve water quality.

Soil Enhancement and Water Cycle Regulation

Vegetation in green spaces helps hold the soil togetherpreventing erosion and sediment runoff. In addition to boosting biodiversity amongst plants and animals, rewilding can lead to the return of natural decomposerswhich enhance soil fertility by breaking down organic matter.

Green spaces also regulate water cycles and minimize negative impacts. These spaces can absorb rainwaterreducing surface runoff and the risk of flooding. Permeable soils in green spaces allow water to seep down and replenish groundwater reserves.

Learn more about the importance of proper stormwater management for environmental conservation, human health, and safety here.

Temperature Regulation

The heat island effect does not harm only humans. It also negatively impacts plants and animals. Urban green spaces can mitigate the urban heat island effectwhere urban areas become significantly hotter than their rural surroundings. As noted above, trees and vegetation might provide enough shade to reduce the need for artificial coolingthereby conserving energy.

Creating Your Own Green Space

Earlier in this article, we pointed out that complete immersion in nature is not necessary to reap many physical and psychological benefits. Scattering indoor plants throughout your apartment, landscaping your backyard with native grasses, and simply hanging photos of nature can all produce positive effects.

For example, this 2016 study found that indoor gardening activities improved cognitive function, mood, and emotional status among elderly participants. This 2009 study noted that indoor plants in hospital rooms increased feelings of well-being in patientsleading to reduced pain perceptions, anxiety, and fatigue.

A 2015 study determined that interaction with indoor plants can reduce psychological and physiological stressas evidenced by decreased blood pressure and improved mood. A variety of studies have also found that indoor plants can improve IAQ by removing volatile organic compoundspotentially leading to better respiratory health. One study published in 2009 found that the mere presence of indoor plants boosted perceived air quality among office workers.

With that said, here are a few indoor plants that might boost your mood and improve your physical well-being.

The Best Indoor Plants for Improving Mood, Cognition, and Recovery

When does an indoor plant evoke positive emotions, offer cognitive benefits, and improve physical well-being? For most of us, the best indoor plants are low-maintenance but still responsive to human attention. They produce oxygen to replenish polluted indoor environments, add beautiful greenery to drab interiors, and can live in low light.

Some of the most beloved house plants include ferns, snake plants, elephant ear plants, and peace lilies. An indoor herb garden is another great way to reap each of these benefits while spicing up your food and consuming much-needed minerals.

However, if reducing air pollution is your primary concern, herbs might not do the trick. According to Rebecca Joy Stanborough in this article for Healthline, the best plants for improving indoor air quality are the “areca, lady, dwarf date, and bamboo palms, Boston fern, rubber tree, spider plant, [and] Ficus tree.”

Bear in mind that the following houseplants can be toxic to pets. Ingestion of the bulbs and leaves of these plants might cause oral irritation, nausea, vomiting, difficulty swallowing, kidney damage, respiratory failure, central nervous system issues, and more. 

  • Aloe Vera
  • Dumb Cane
  • Sago Palm
  • Photos
  • Philodendron
  • Jade Plant
  • Cyclamen
  • Azalea
  • Autumn Crocus
  • Tulips
  • Hyacinths
  • Oleander
  • Kalanchoe
  • Asparagus Fern
  • Many varietals of lily, including the Peace Lily
  • English Ivy
  • Yew
  • Amaryllis
  • Chrysanthemum
  • ZZ Plant

The Best Plants for Outdoor Spaces

As for outdoor spaces, the best types of ornamental grasses, street trees, and other plants will vary depending on where you live and what your primary goals are. In general, native plants are typically preferred for their ability to survive, thrive, and support existing ecosystems or rewilding efforts.

Indigenous plants that are already adapted to your specific environment are also better equipped to aid in controlling water runoff and filtering pollutants. Switchgrassfor exampleis a native prairie grass with deep roots. As such, switchgrass is excellent for stabilizing soil and absorbing water. Soft rushwhich is a grass-like plantthrives in wet conditions. This makes it ideal for rain gardens and bioswales.

As noted above, plants play a crucial role in mitigating the heat island effect by providing shade, reflecting sunlight, and releasing moisture through transpiration. If your primary landscaping goal is to limit the heat island effect, consider large canopy trees, green roofs, climbing vines, shrubs, and drought-tolerant plants that require little watering.

Regardless of where you live and what your intentions are, we recommend consulting with a landscape architect, horticulturist, or other expert before selecting outdoor plants for residential or commercial spaces.

Final Thoughts

The value provided by reintroducing natural elements to urban environments cannot be understated. Exposure to nature encourages us to exercise, engage with our neighbors, calm our minds, and so much more. At AVLV, we incorporate green spaces into every project. From green roofs to tree-lined streets, our developments support each facet of human health while protecting the natural environment.




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