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Put This Down and Go Hug a Tree

Second Theory Paper

I'm writing this theory paper from under a gnarly mossy tree with fluttering golden russet leaves. The Quad here at Hogwarts is still velvety green and grassy underneath its artfully scattered seasonal carpet of autumn leaves. I need this. We need this. The everyday irony of my journey here is that I came to study landscape architecture because I believe in the restorative necessity of connecting with the natural world, and yet we LA students are cloistered away into the most brutally designed and most nature-free1 monstrosity of a concrete barracks that ever existed. Who can work there? Whose mind can unwind long enough to produce a creative thought, in that exhausting environment?

Since there are too many people like me who are involuntarily forced into throwing away too many hours cooped up in hideous buildings, we clearly still need great theorists to point out the obvious for us. This week I thank J. Sheather, in their article “The art of medicine: Landscape and health,”2 S. Kaplan, in “The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework,”3 and T. Hartig and P. Kahn in “Living in cities, naturally,”4 for restating what apparently not enough of us know yet. I designed my studio project before reading their work, but I can reverse-engineer and say that I designed with them in mind. It's true; I was actively designing with their principles at the forefront of my mind. I just didn't yet know these people shared my beliefs.

Theory Summary

Sheather presents a romantic, Gainsboroughesque view of nature as a halcyon therapeutic idyll. It's the historic and symbolic cure for what ails the big bad city, they say. They say, “where the city has been seen as a source of sickness and contagion, of confusion and disorder, the rhythms of the natural world have offered the hope of cure or relief.” (22) Having lived in the country, I find this argument excessively simplistic, but admire their reminder that archetypes have an ineluctable, almost Joseph Campbell-ian permanent hold on the human psyche (my words). Humans live in the intersection between the rational and the irrational (also my words) and it is too easy as a rationalist to forget the power of symbolism on the collective unconscious as a motivating force for behaviour and culture. Sheather, apparently writing from Dickensian London, says we as humans traditionally equate the city with anonymity, immorality, and sickness, and nature with “ideas of wellbeing and human wholeness” (22) and “the sources of life itself.” (23) He does however agree with my conviction that the allopathic overmedicalization of healing practices we see here in the US is not necessarily the most effective approach to dealing with many of the malaises that affect citizens of developed Western countries today that in turn lead to sickness and chronic poor health. I both agree and disagree with his idea that “where biochemical interventions fail...where a literal cure is unavailable, we sometimes have recourse to symbolic means.” (22) [By “symbolic means” he is referring to nature.] His intention is right but his words are wrong. There is way too much hard scientific research out there indicating concrete physical proof of the specific healing effects of nature on human health, even using completely allopathic critera, to refer to nature as “symbolic means.” But I like his spirit.

I say “get off your ---ing phone and go hug a tree” daily, and this is the spine of Kaplan's argument for how nature is an integral tool in Attention Restoration Theory—a field which I believe wouldn't even exist if we hadn't created the need for it with our computers and our relentless contemporary insistence on lifestyles that demand fragmented attention as a nearly permanent way of getting through a day. We have a society of byte-addicts who can no longer process complex thought, or even, thought at all. If it's longer than a Tweet, nobody pays attention any more. Because nobody has voluntary attention to pay. We have lost our capacity for “executive functioning, the capability necessary to lead an organized an purposeful life.” (Lezak, 1982; Stuss & Benson, 1986) (170) Kaplan knows that our minds' capacity to eat their mental vegetables is limited, recognizes the evolutionary value in this (aware of our environment = able to escape predators faster), and points us to our hero Frederick Law Olmsted, who “not only understood the possibility that the capacity to focus might be fatigued, he also recognized the need for urban dwellers to recover this capacity in the context of nature.” (170) He explains that we need restorative environments to provide us with “soft attention” opportunities for “reflection, which can further enhance the benefits of recovering from directed attention fatigue (Kaplan, 1993).” (172) He explains that “experience in natural environments can not only help mitigate stress; it can also prevent it through aiding the recovery of [directed attention].” (180) And he cites four key players in what makes an effective restorative space: “being away. Fascination. Extent. Compatibility.” (174) These ideas make healing spaces.

Hartig and Kahn pick up where Corner and Meyer left off last week, and say that spending time in nature is good for you. Specifically, that “such urban design provisions can also yield ecological benefits, not only directly but also through the role they play in shaping attitudes toward the environment and environmental protection. Knowledge of the psychological benefits of nature experience supports efforts to better integrate nature into the architecture, infrastructure, and public spaces of urban areas.” (938) They agree with Kaplan that “laboratory and field experiments have repeatedly shown that spending time in natural environments or viewing scenes of nature can quickly help people to life their mood, improve their ability to direct attention, and reduce physiological arousal to a greater degree than do urban streets and other comparison conditions.” (939) They say spending time in nature improves mood and ability to direct attention, and add that there are future as well as immediate cultural benefits: by going outside and hanging out with the trees, we reduce the insidious creep of what they call environmental generational amnesia, and natural environments are an “important solution to this collective loss of memory and can counter the shifting baseline.” (940)

Design Application

For my studio project I designed a restorative environment that provided a healing step away from the hustlebustle of academia. I provided an environment that was noticeably designed, so it would consciously register as what Kaplan refers to as “being away.” (174) I incorporated lots of plants and water and natural elements to invoke soft attention, and considered the archetypal effect of natural symbolism on the minds of my visitors. Sheather would see my natural swimming pool as an immersive dive into the collective unconscious, and after I read their article, I too see it as a Jungian healing complement to the hospital nearby. Olmsted would see my designed site, with its organized hierarchy of prospect and refuge and geometry and wildness, as an excellent study aid that would reinvigorate the minds of weary students otherwise cooped up in ugly buildings. Kaplan too would embrace the improvement in directed attention that would be noticed in my visitors after their experiencing of my heightened version of the natural world. And if my son visited this site, he would grow up without generational amnesia, but rather, become a future steward of the land.

If I were to develop my project further, with these three articles in mind, I would look more closely at the more organic and plant-heavy areas of my site, and question how best I could shape them into psychiatric nursemaids for ailing urban minds. I would also look more critically at my own knee-jerk understanding that plants are good and they make us feel good, and ask myself, well, since that's true, how can we most consciously use that power to tap into other people's Sheatherian knee-jerk understanding that nature heals what hospitals don't? I would also reconsult an old paper I wrote back at Columbia on the neurobiological benefits of walking through a tea garden, and one I wrote at Berkeley about the immunological benefits of Japanese forest-bathing. Sheather, Kaplan, Hartig, Kahn, and I believe that designed natural environments can be even more beneficial to human health and well-being than undesigned ones, so the ongoing question is how best to apply this truth. With great power comes great responsibility.

1Don't get me started on the design-build courtyard.

2Sheather, J.  January 3, 2009.  “The art of medicine: Landscape and health.”  Lancet, 373(9657), pp.22-23.

3Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15(3), 169-182.

4Hartig, T.  and P. Kahn. May 2016. “Living in cities, naturally”