1 February, 2018
Nature in Spaces, and the Nature of Places

Life and work can be draining. We are only able to focus so much before our mental capacity is used up and we become ineffective zombies, drowning in caffeine to meet deadlines and expectations of work, friends, and family. We know this is unhealthy and that our work suffers. But what can we do?

Experiencing nature—going on a hike, relaxing on a beach, or even sitting in a park—can help recharge our cognitive capacities, acting like a reset button for our human RAM. Environmental psychologists and neuroscientists have been saying this for decades, but this has only recently entered the consciousness of planners and designers.

Researchers in Melbourne, Australia recently conducted a study to understand what features of a park grab and hold our attention. Unsurprisingly, the verdant patches of shrubbery, water elements, and wildlife of Fitzroy Gardens caught people’s attention significantly more than any other elements in this or other sites. In more arid spaces, however, researchers noted that distinctly human-made components were most captivating.

What may be most surprising to traditional planning conventions is that these two observations are not at odds. Unique features (e.g. signs, flowers, water fountains) capture our attention because they break up the monotony of one’s surroundings, acting as waypoints or signposts in a repetitive space. Attention Restoration Theory predicts that the visual fixations prompted by natural environments provide respite from extended periods of concentration.

Our attraction to nature’s ability to generate such stimuli is called biophilia, or love of nature, and explains why people thrive in spaces that incorporate and mimic the aesthetics of healthy ecosystems. The beneficial aspects of nature aren’t limited to material objects, they include other qualities of natural spaces: light, sounds, and odor, too.

As discussed in our recent meet-up on biophilic design, we generally register these deliberate design decisions when they bring greenery into our urban spaces, most commonly seen in buildings or communities where access is available to a limited, privileged few (i.e. wealthy, professional elite – think all the private gardens in London). But this is not always the case. In an inspiring summary of well-designed, effective spaces on Curbed (work by Conscious Cities and Itai Palti are referenced by the author), one can see a host of work designed not for the elite, but for the everyday and those most in need.

  • Halden Prison in Norway replaces a concrete yard and stale cells, ubiquitous in American penal system with lots of natural light, furnishings that are made of wood and other soft materials; making the prison yard more reminiscent of a suburban backyard or park, full of trees and grass.

  • Rush University Medical Center in Chicago has added light wells, skylights, and gardens throughout their buildings. They have also added rooftop gardens on their lower level roofs, allowing patients and staff to get a glimpse of greenery in lieu of an industrial roof.
  • Dementia villages in Amsterdam and Rome, as well as an Alzheimer community Town Square in San Diego offer patients suffering from loss of memory and mental capabilities to live in a controlled, supportive, and reminiscent space. Beyond an emphasis on greenery, these spaces reflect a much more scaled down vision of urban spaces, reflecting our human need to comprehend or see a space.

Biophilia is an important tool for creating environments better suited to the user’s needs, but there are many other. Dr. Layla McCay at the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health has developed protocols and practices for designers and planners for cities to be more prosocial, safe, and active. These spaces are intended to bring about the same sense of comfort and activity that “dementia villages” do, but for all.

On the other side of the human-centric spectrum, we unfortunately know how to design “hostile” spaces, too, that inhibit physical comfort—hard benches with arm rests in the middle, ground spikes, bright lights, high frequency sounds—so that homeless people cannot sleep in parks or travelers cannot sleep in airport lounges. If you like listening to podcasts, there is a great 99% Invisible episode on Hostile Design that we recommend.


Recognizing that people benefit from, and are drawn to certain environments, architects and planners are increasing access to green space in urban settings, rethinking building materials, and providing more natural, or natural feeling light. If we keep informing design with new insights coming in from science, the future could look so much brighter, and not just because our bulbs might emit less (harmful) blue light than the LEDs of 2000’s.

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