In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” – John Muir
A growing body of studies indicates people are drawn to the subtle, yet powerful magnetism of nature, and for good cause. Time spent in nature benefits overall health and well-being in quantifiable ways. Builders, designers, architects, policymakers, employers, health experts and researchers are integrating humans’ innate need to connect with the natural world into their plans and designs. Call it ecopsychology or biophilia (or tree-hugging, for that matter), nourishing the relationship with the natural environment pays meaningful dividends for individuals, businesses and communities. Colorado builders are paying more attention than ever.
Designing in natural terms
Ecopsychology and biophilia are ways in which humans connect with nature.
Ecopsychology, according to Merriam-Webster, is: “of or relating to the environments of living things or to the relationships between living things and their environments.”
Biophilia is the term coined by the Harvard naturalist Dr. Edward O. Wilson to describe what he saw as humanity’s “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.” Biophilic design is the practice of connecting people and nature within built environments and the communities in which they reside.
Harmony of connection with the environment
Both concepts bring connectivity between humans and nature. Since the 1950s, we have become increasingly disconnected with and less surrounded by nature. Whether stepping outdoors, or bringing about a sense of nature inside, the science behind cultivating that lost connection is strong. Perhaps that is why people now “bathe” in forests. Forest bathing and forest therapy (or Shinrin-yoku), according to the Global Wellness Institute, “broadly means taking in, in all of one’s senses, the forest atmosphere. It is a conscious and contemplative practice of being immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the forest.”
Evidence-based studies – Why it matters for body, mind and spirit:
Living in greener, urban areas is associated with lower probabilities of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma hospitalization, mental distress, and ultimately, mortality.
According to the American Public Health Association’s policy statement on Improving Health and Wellness through Access to Nature, “Access to nature has been related to lower levels of mortality and illness, higher levels of outdoor physical activity, restoration from stress, a greater sense of well-being, and greater social capital. People evolved in natural environments, but urbanization, the industrialization of agriculture, and a shift to sedentary indoor lifestyles have distanced many people from nature, depriving them of the positive health benefits associated with natural light, green views, local biodiversity, natural landscapes, and gardens and parks near their homes, schools, and workplaces. Low-income and ethnic communities are most likely to lack these resources. A rapidly growing body of evidence establishes that protecting and restoring access to nature in different spheres of people’s lives, among those of all ages, social groups, and abilities, can alleviate some of the most important problems in public health, including obesity, stress, social isolation, injury, and violence.”
Nature heals the mind as well. According to Positive Psychology:
“Nature helps in emotional regulation and improves memory functions. A study on the cognitive benefits of nature found that subjects who took a nature walk did better on a memory test than the subjects who walked down the urban streets.
Nature walks benefit people suffering from depression. Studies had shown that people suffering from mild to major depressive disorders showed significant mood upliftments when exposed to nature. Not only that, but they also felt more motivated and energized to recover and get back to normalcy.
Recent investigations revealed that being outdoor reduces stress by lowering the stress hormone cortisol.
Nature walks and other outdoor activities build attention and focus. There are pieces of evidence that indicate strong environmental connections to be related to better performance, heightened concentration, and reduced chances of developing Attention Deficit Disorder.
A study at the University of Kansas found that spending more time outdoors and less time with our electronic devices can increase our problem-solving skills and improve creative abilities.”
Ever wonder why a stroll along the path brings about a sense of peace, calmness and relaxation?
“By staying close to nature,” states Positive Psychology, “We feel more grateful and appreciative of what it has to offer to us (Proshansky, 1976). Seeing the wonders of the world outside automatically fosters within us the urge to protect it.”
Breathing in nature gives us wholesome sensory awareness. When we spend time outdoors, we are more mindful of what we see, what we hear, what we smell, and what we feel. That translates into how we interact with others and the world.”
Creating an oasis in the city through biophilic design
It is no surprise that landscape designers are dutifully embracing the notion of bringing natural elements into manmade plans.
“This is where natural features integrate in the man-made world, and are the central heart of the place,” says Steven W. James, AIA and founding partner of DTJ Design. “(It) provides connectivity, and brings tranquility through light, water, and plant life, to foster wellness, and balance the stress of modern life.”
Biophilic design aims to provide a reprieve from urban life.
“We try to integrate the disciplines and we actually try to create landscape features within our solutions of architecture or planning,” says James.
According to biophilic-design.com, the elements can be direct, indirect, include components of space and place, (and can include both softscape as well as hardscape):
“The Practice of Biophilic Design,” written by Stephen R. Kellert and Elizabeth F. Calabrese (Biophilicdesign.umn.edu), the elements are organized into the following categories:
Direct Experience of Nature
- Natural landscapes and ecosystems
Indirect experiences of nature
- Images of nature
- Natural materials
- Natural colors
- Simulating natural light and air
- Naturalistic shapes and forms
- Evoking nature
- Information richness
- Age, change, and the patina of time
- Natural geometries
Experience of space and place
- Prospect and refuge
- Organized complexity
- Integration of parts to wholes
- Transitional spaces
- Mobility and wayfinding
- Cultural and ecological attachment to place”
Trends of naturalism and landscaping in Colorado and the Intermountain West
How does one go about implementing the naturalism concept into an existing environment? Certified Colorado gardener Ann Kendall from Go West Gardener offers up tips on how to shape gardens and landscape design:
5 Ways to Embrace Naturalism in Home Landscapes
Lean into natural designs
Say goodbye to shaped hedges and pristine rows of flowers. With naturalism, our landscapes reflect the beauty of Colorado’s wild settings, taking inspiration from sun-loving prairies, mountain meadows and alpine crevice gardens. Use “drifts” of flowers, natural elements (like boulders) and intermingled layers of plants.
Turn your landscapes into a lively ecosystem where pollinators—like bees, butterflies and birds—can thrive. The Xerces Society, a nonprofit for pollinator conservation, suggests encouraging pollinators in four ways: grow flowers that offer nectar and pollen from spring to fall, create shelter so pollinators can nest and lay eggs, avoid pesticide use and engage neighbors in your efforts.
Native plants give us a way to recreate harmony with our natural surroundings. These plants have been around since before European settlement. They’re ecologically adapted to our tricky climate and tough soils. And they tend to be magnets for native bees and other at-risk pollinators.
This doesn’t mean you have to plant cacti! It means getting strategic with water use, seeking out drought-tolerant plants and grouping plants with similar water needs for efficient irrigation. Look for beautiful plants that are native to the high plains and intermountain west, as well as plants from “sister climates” (high steppe regions of the world that share our unique growing conditions).
Reduce your turf
Is there a place for turf lawns? Sure. But there’s also an opportunity to rethink how we use landscapes in our semi-arid climate, so we can encourage wildlife and reduce water bills. (Less stress!) Where it makes sense to do so, consider alternatives to thirsty lawns, like waterwise groundcovers, low-water perennials or warm season grasses. These plants require less watering, mowing and fertilizing, and offer habitat for wildlife.
Bill Clifford, nursery manager at James Nursery, added to the trends list, “The houses are getting so close together and now there’s not a whole lot of room anymore, where 20 years ago, we had a lot more majestic oaks and maples.” He continued, “The real trend lately is going toward anything that is skinny like a column, like upright Junipers and green spirals.”
Another movement that stands out for Clifford is waterwise plants and xeriscape, “Every plant you put in the ground is going to require some water, usually the whole first season. Once they get established, like a Russian Sage, a lot of them don’t need any supplemental water at all. They’ll survive on just a little bit of water.”
Bill seconds the notion that perennials are making a bold statement here in Colorado, “Perennials are huge. There are so many new types out there. The bloom times are longer and there are more colorful flowers now.” James Nursery has a dedicated perennial manager due to the high demand.
Ultimately, nature and naturalism are potent elixirs
How much time should be spent in nature to enhance well-being? Jim Robbins, author and writer for Yale Environment 360, says it takes precisely 120 minutes per week. “In a study of 20,000 people,” says Robbins in his blog, “a team led by Mathew White of the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter, found that people who spent two hours a week in green spaces — local parks or other natural environments, either all at once or spaced over several visits — were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who don’t.”
Scientists say it is worth spending those 15-20 minutes a day for a healthy dose of well-being and a little inspiration along the way. What is there to lose? And there might be a bit of inspiration along the way, at least according to this architect who famously melded the ideas of structure and nature.
“I go to nature every day for inspiration in the day’s work.” – Frank Lloyd Wright