Today, over half of the world’s population lives in a city. This number is expected to grow rapidly - according to projections from the United Nations, by 2030, the world will have 41 cities each with 10 million inhabitants or more. At CAMA, we follow biophilic design principles because we believe that access to nature is a fundamental need to humans.
With nature generally being scarce in these growing urban environments, we wonder how will megacity living impact our health and wellbeing?
How will megacity living impact
our health and wellbeing?
It was not until 1984 that scientific data finally confirmed what we've all intuitively known - views of nature promote healing. Conducted by Environmental Psychologist, Roger Ulrich, the landmark study, “View through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery” was the first study to prove that patients heal more rapidly when exposed to views of nature.
Ulrich reviewed the medical records of patients recovering from gallbladder surgery at a suburban Pennsylvania hospital. Patient rooms either overlooked a grove of trees or a brick wall. Those patients with tree views recovered almost a full day faster and required fewer doses of pain medication than those patients who viewed the brick wall .
Even simulated views of nature have been found to have positive health effects. In subsequent research, Ulrich and colleagues measured the impact of different visual stimuli including nature art, abstract art, and a control condition with no art on patients recovering from heart surgery. Those patients exposed to art depicting a sunny, spatially open view of trees and water experienced the least anxiety and pain as compared to the other conditions  .
Throughout history there are many examples of cultures harnessing the restorative properties of nature. In Ancient Greece, the chronically and terminally ill sought medical care at temples located on hilltops with sweeping views of the Mediterranean Sea.
New York City didn't hit megacity status until 1950 but almost 100 years earlier, civic leaders had recognized the need for green space, ultimately setting aside 750 acres of land in central Manhattan for what would become the first landscaped public park in the United States: Central Park. Its landscape designer and architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, understood the link between public parks and public health, famously saying,
“The occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character...is favorable to the health and vigor of men”.
Today Central Park is the most frequently visited urban park in the United States, receiving 42 million visits each year.
More recently, New York City’s conversion of an abandoned, elevated railway into a landscaped pedestrian path known as the High Line has soared in popularity becoming one of the top visitor attractions in New York, more popular even than the Statue of Liberty. In 2000, the dilapidated railway, stretching 1.5 miles from the Meatpacking District to the Hudson Rail Yards in Manhattan had become an eyesore. Teetering on the brink of demolition, a group of community activists fought for its preservation. Striking photographs by Joel Sternfeld captured the rails overgrown with wildflowers and grasses. Set against a backdrop of brick, steel, concrete, and views of the city skyline, images of this green swath of “wildscape” surprised and delighted the public and played a major role in the movement to save the High Line and inspired the final design. The resulting public promenade designed by landscape architect James Corner Field Operations and architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, utilizes shifting planks to demarcate an irregular pathway. Plantings seem to creep between planks suggesting an overgrown trail, celebrating nature’s ability to thrive even in the most unexpected places.
How much could a tree in the street or a
nearby neighborhood park improve our health?
In Singapore, signs of nature are never too far from view, sprouting up in the form of lush rooftop gardens, tree-lined streets, and spectacular parks. Former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew recognized the unnatural and potentially harmful effect of urban living, once saying “A concrete jungle destroys the human spirit”. Yew set out to transform Singapore into a “garden city” by softening the hard edge of urban development with the integration of landscaping. In the 1960s, he introduced an intensive tree-planting campaign, which was followed by the creation of parks and nature reserves. Today, Singapore continues to realize this vision with ambitious projects such as the Gardens by the Bay, a park equal in size to “177 football fields and home to 80 percent of the world’s plant species”. One of the park’s main attractions is a grove of solar-powered "Supertrees". These towering structures with branch-like canopies support the growth of an exotic collection of ferns and vines while simultaneously generating power, collecting rainwater, and acting as air vents for nearby attractions.
Maybe simply having more trees within view is good for us - this being especially true during times of illness.
Even ordinary trees have superpowers when it comes to influencing our health. An interesting study set out to isolate the health potential embodied in a single tree asking, “how much could a tree in the street or a nearby neighborhood park improve our health ?
Turns out, quite a lot. Researchers overlaid health questionnaire responses from more than 31,000 Toronto residents onto a map of the city, block by block. Those living on blocks with more trees showed a boost in heart and metabolic health equivalent to what one would experience from a $20,000 gain in income . Other studies have found that living in close proximity to parks and green space positively influences our health, even when we don’t use them. This suggests that simply having more trees within view is good for us.
To learn more about the amazing positive effects of nature,
read our Nature Prescription White Paper.
To see an example of how we applied this research into a design project,
view our work for The Emerson Resort and Spa.
1. Ulrich, R. S. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224, 42–421.
2. Ulrich, R., Lunden, O., & Eltinge, J. (1993). Effects of exposure to nature and abstract pictures on patients recovering from open heart surgery. Psycholophysiology: Journal of the Society for Psychophysiological Research, 30, suppl 1, S7.
3. Kardan, O., Gozdyra, P., Misic, B., Moola, F., Palmer, L.J., Paus, T. & Berman, M.G. (2015). Neighborhood greenspace and health in a large urban center. Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 11610 (2015) doi:10.1038/srep11610
4. Kardan, O., et. al, Article number: 11610 (2015) doi:10.1038/srep11610