It is all too easy for people living in urban environments (urbanites) to get caught up in the busy hectic worlds of their lives. There is so much to do and enjoy, ranging from work, to playing and watching sports, cinemas, ballets, libraries, exercise… the list is endless. Each of these experiences provides stimulation for the brain and perhaps sometimes relaxation. In the urban world we are constantly bombarded with visual, acoustic, tactile, or olfactory sensory stimulation. Each of these demands our attention, processing, and response, be that to fight or flight, inhibit or consume.
All of this stimulation can have a fatiguing effect on the brain as it is constantly inhibiting competing demands and stimulations while directing attention on a specific task. As brain cells fatigue and struggle to prevent other stimulations from receiving attention, task performance and efficiency decreases. Over time a fatigued individual is likely to suffer from stress and further health complications.
Natural environments are also stimulating, but in a different way. According to the Attention Restoration Theory, natural elements within a safe environment induce involuntary attention (fascination), which doesn’t demand or fatigue the brain. Instead they help fatigued cells to recover, enabling an individual to perform more efficiently, and provide a chance for reflection.
Urban environments therefore need to include natural elements to provide urbanites opportunities to recover from the bombardment of sensory stimulations. Architecture can reflect nature by incorporating the designs of leaves and trees into buildings, such as the classic Sagrada Familia by Gaudi, in Barcelona. More literally, plants adorn city buildings to produce green roofs and walls. These provide fascinating views for neighbours and pedestrians as well as building insulation, reduced energy costs, reduced flash floods, and increased biodiversity. Bringing nature into the city improves opportunities for restoration; urban parks are not just the lungs of the city, they can offer the cognitive, physiological, and emotional support for humans.
The greenery, wildlife, and fountains within urban parks provide a visual and acoustic experience of a natural environment. However, the sounds heard within an urban park (its soundscape) often include sounds from the surrounding urban environment, such as traffic and construction work. These ‘urban’ sounds can mask the natural sounds and diminish the sense of being in a natural environment, thereby potentially reducing visits to urban parks from being truly restorative experiences. Landscape and town planners therefore need to consider both the visual landscape and its extended soundscape to create restorative environments for urbanites.
Incorporating restorative environments into cities is important if they are to be sustainable for humans to live and work whilst remaining healthy. Taking a holistic sensorial approach to the design of future city buildings, transportation (e.g. the sound of electric vehicles), recreational spaces, and residential areas, will maximise the chance for natural elements to flourish. Nature is a positive part of the city, not just potential building space; nature enables the restoration people need to continue enjoying those urban stimulations.
Kaplan R. and Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: a psychological perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press. http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/business/sectors/91970.aspx
Payne, S.R. (2008). Are perceived soundscapes within urban parks restorative? Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 123(5), 3809.