Sally Brown

July 17, 2012 | General

Connections: Daily Dose Of Nature

Sally Brown
BioCycle July 2012, Vol. 53, No. 7, p. 44

I had lunch today with Jim Ellis. I’ve written about Jim before and the Mountains to Sound Greenway program that he started in the Seattle area (see “The Green Way,” June 2011). This is the program that has set aside close to 300,000 acres of land running from the Puget Sound over the Cascade Crest and into Eastern Washington as green space. He recently gave me funding to see if organic soil amendments might provide enough additional nutrition and relief from drought stress so that a portion of the trees on the East slopes will be able to survive the pine bark beetle and spruce bud worm attacks that have wiped out wide stretches of forest in this region. Our lunch was ostensibly an update on how that project is going.
Over tuna fish on toast, he talked about how much these natural open spaces mean to him. For his 90th birthday his kids accompanied him on a 1.5-mile hike into the forest, so he could catch a glimpse of one of the alpine lakes surrounded by trees. I told him that for me, it was the water not the trees that satisfied my needs. I confessed that the day before, I had gone for a swim in one of the local lakes, and that despite losing feeling in my extremities, I came out dripping and happy. During our conversation, I thought about my mother’s joy in tending her garden in Queens, New York and how happy she was with the volunteer tomatoes and raspberries that sprouted where she buried her food scraps to enrich her soil. Even now in her apartment, I get regular updates on the health of the oxalis and the number of buds on the Christmas cactus (it celebrates Christmas several times a year).
While not everyone has access to the Northwest Cascade Mountains, a neighborhood lake or a backyard garden, research is starting to quantify the benefits of nature for public health. An early study by Ulrich and others (1991) got people all upset by watching a stressful film and then either showed them street scenes from the inner city or clips from the Nature channel. Those who were forced to watch the A train instead of the panda bear ended up with a slower recovery time from the stress.
More recently there was a review article (Bowler et al., 2010) that looked for evidence of improved health after a walk or run in the country in comparison to similar activity in a built environment. Here the authors reported happier people were those who went to the countryside but just a trend toward improvement in indicators like blood pressure. Finally another study that same year tested well over 1,000 individuals for response to exercise in natural environments (Barton and Pretty, 2010). People who ran in the woods rather than on the treadmill while watching CNN (my own embellishment here) had better self-esteem and moods. This effect would have been significant even if the monitor above the treadmill had been turned to the Food Network.
Does this mean that if you want people to be healthy, happy and low stress you need to bus everybody each week to open space and make them jog around a field? Boot camp for Brooklyn? Because over half of the world’s people live in cities and this number is expected to increase as our population does. Urban areas are not traditionally known for their expanses of open fields and forests. To date, much of the emphasis has been on preserving open space outside of cities. This is great for biodiversity and also helps those individuals who do venture out. But it really doesn’t offer direct relief for the vast majority of people who live in concrete jungles.

Greening The Jungle

And those natives in the concrete jungles do get restless. If you want to talk about a real concrete jungle, a good place to start is Medellín, Columbia. This is a city that was known world wide for having a lot of unhappy people, a sky-high murder rate and plenty of drug cartels. But according to an article I read recently, investments in infrastructure to improve the quality of life in Medellín, including public transportation, even to hard to reach hillside slums, and creating large public open spaces, are having a dramatic effect. Crime rate is way down, city is clean, and buses are now coming to Medellín as part of a growing tourist industry.
Now can you imagine if you invested in infrastructure but did it the green way? Incorporating green infrastructure into urban areas is a means to reap the public health benefits associated with increased exposure to natural systems and bring other benefits to boot. Take Mexico City for example, where the air quality the City was known for (not in a good way) is now better. The government has restricted use of cars, reformulated gasoline to be less polluting and made a free bicycle loan program available. Air quality is also being improved by use of living walls. Planted vertical gardens have been installed in a busy intersection and in a park. There are also attempts to uncover a forgotten river by tearing up roads to let the water surface and start acting like a river again.
Even in the U.S., we are seeing some greening of urban areas. The recent collapse in the real estate market may have started reversing itself. For many regions, sales appear to be coming back more quickly in the urban core rather than in the suburbs. Walkability has now replaced that three car garage as a must have for many prospective buyers. A previous column detailed the monetary value of a bioretention system. That included dollars for improved public health as people would be more likely to go outside for a walk if there was a pretty green area to walk next to. Seems like that was a conservative estimated value as it didn’t take into account stress reduction and emotional well being associated with exposure to nature.
Time to wake up and smell the roses, so to speak.
Sally Brown — Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle — authors this regular column. Email Dr. Brown at

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