Friday, February 27, 2009

Landscape on the Brain

Landscape is good. Landscape is healthy. Landscape is necessary. We all know this, innately, but a refresher is never a bad idea. This post made the rounds a few months back, quoting a study and article from the Boston Globe, 'How the city hurts your brain, and what you can do about it.' delves again into the idea, using a recent research study from Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan.

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From the article: "One of the main forces at work is a stark lack of nature, which is surprisingly beneficial for the brain. Studies have demonstrated, for instance, that hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows, and that women living in public housing are better able to focus when their apartment overlooks a grassy courtyard. Even these fleeting glimpses of nature improve brain performance, it seems, because they provide a mental break from the urban roil."

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Filthy Mess

The article continues: "This research is also leading some scientists to dabble in urban design, as they look for ways to make the metropolis less damaging to the brain. The good news is that even slight alterations, such as planting more trees in the inner city or creating urban parks with a greater variety of plants, can significantly reduce the negative side effects of city life. The mind needs nature, and even a little bit can be a big help."

This has been evident since the days of pioneering landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who looked a parks in cities not as much from a ecological as from a social and public health standpoint. The urbanization and densification creates blight that isn't just unhealthy in a physical way, but also a psychological one. Subsequently, the work of Jay Appleton (Prospect-refuge theory), the Kaplans' study of environmental psychology, and the whole up and coming Biophilic Design crowd - shows there is no shortage of material to draw on. I'm currently reading a book that I picked up in a used bookstore in on a recent Mt. Shasta trip. Written by Charles A. Lewis, Green Nature, Urban Nature explores 'the meaning of plants in our lives', and concludes that culturally, evolutionarily, and spiritually - landscape and nature including plants, offers us a huge well of positive benefits.

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Univ. of Illinois Press

Thus nature = good. Cities = density. Nature in Cities = good density. This goes for the incorporation of the vegetation in buildings as well, as I posit, and as Lewis points out in the opening chapter of his book: "Severed from their roothold in native soil and transplanted to the city, plants stubbornly push new roots into earth substitutes. They unfurl their banners outside of buildings, clinging to walls, festooning windows and balconies, and transforming rooftops into verdant outposts. Within buildings they proclaim their message in flowerpots on windowsills and desks, along corridors, and at elevators. Echoes of larger landscapes are found in specially constructed atria in offices, hotels, restaurants, stores, shopping malls, and hospitals, where they provide protective habitats for lush displays of vegetation." (p.3)

:: Chicago City Hall - image via

Another interesting observation that I didn't think about was the direct biological connection we have to plants. "Our ties to the green world are often subtle and unexpected. It is not merely that hemoglobin and chlorophyll bear a striking similarity in structure, or that plants provide the pleasure of food and flowers." The major difference between the building blocks of human and plant is the use of a foundation of iron versus magnesium... a subtle difference for sure.

:: Cholorphyll / Hemoglobin - images via
Scientific Psychic

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