Urban ecology part two: How nature heals the sick

Urban ecology

Urban ecology part two: How nature heals the sick

For many of us here at Coster Content, the environment is our number one concern. But no one beats Nike. And she’s back to tell us why...

In the first instalment of our urban ecology series, we looked back at how and why humans have become detached from the natural world. One glance at the concrete kingdoms we live in is enough to see that we’ve outcast most of nature from our everyday lives. Now, in this second instalment, it’s time to look at how opening the city gates to greenery could have incredible health benefits on us urban dwellers.

Medicine

It’s crazy to think there are over 50,000 medicinal plants in use across the world. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: nature provides. We use these plants to develop mainstream pharmaceuticals to save thousands of lives. But, we also have our old wives' tales and family traditions using herbs, plants, and fungi to cure a variety of ailments. How many of us have foraged through the bushes looking for the holy grail of dock leaves after a nasty sting from a nettle? I know I have.

We don‘t often dispute the magnificence of nature’s ability to revitalise us. But what if I told you that even being close to nature can have healing benefits? Or how just looking at a picture of trees is effective pain relief? We might find this harder to believe.

Biophilia

In 1984, Edward Wilson published Biophilia. It’s a book that would influence decades of research and introduce the ‘biophilia hypothesis’. This hypothesis states that humans have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life because of our evolution. People use it to explain why many risk their lives to save domestic and wild animals, our love for baby mammals, our attraction to flowers, and other ways we bring snippets of nature into our lives. But researchers have taken this concept further, claiming our innate connection with nature can impact both our mental and physical health.

Nature views

It was Ulrich, an environmental psychologist, who first got us back to taking the relationship between nature and physical health seriously. In 1984, he published a well-controlled, scientific study showing how just gazing into a garden significantly reduced patients’ needs for pain medication, reduced postsurgical complications, and increased their recovery time from infections and other ailments compared to those looking at a brick wall.

Since this study, the research in this area has grown massively. According to multiple studies, just three to five minutes spent looking at tree-dominated views, flowers, or natural water can reduce anger, anxiety, and pain, even lowering blood pressure. And this force is so powerful that even looking at a picture of a natural landscape can promote better wellbeing. In a separate piece of research in 1993, Ulrich assigned 160 heart surgery patients in intensive care to one of five conditions in their room during recovery:

  • Simulated window views via a photograph of a dark forest

  • Simulated window views of a tree-lined stream

  • One of two abstract paintings

  • A white panel

  • A blank wall

The study found patients with a tree-lined stream needed less pain medication than those under the other conditions. This research isn’t claiming that being among nature can cure cancer or heal burns. What it claims is nature can reduce stress and pain, therefore boosting the immune system to promote faster healing.

Healing the non-physical

The benefits of surrounding yourself with nature may also impact mental health issues. One study found that immersing yourself in the natural world heightens your overall well-being. Some studies have also shown how getting involved in nature, through walks in parks and forests, can reduce the symptoms of ADHD in children. Children who walked in nature rather than city centres and suburbs had much higher concentration levels. There are countless other studies showing how nature can induce feelings of happiness, peace, relaxations and, as a result, reduce stress and anxiety. So why do our cities appear to avoid as much nature as possible?

Building healthier cities

There is a connection between our involvement with the green, natural world and our mental and physical wellbeing. It seems humans are biophilic, whether our attraction is conscious or not, and incorporating the concept of urban ecology into our lives could be a surprisingly effective way to escape the stress of the city. Most councils in the UK recognise this and are introducing more legislation to increase the number of green spaces in our cities. But why don’t we take it to the next level?

Instead of a lifeless lawn in front of our house, plant wildflowers, have rooftop gardens, plant trees onto your business premises, let children play among trees in fields at school! Why shouldn’t we? We may find ourselves just a little bit happier and healthier each day.

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Alia Coster