We Are Nature: outdoors, indoors, and health

I sit here on a rainy Sunday, the first of May, realizing a couple of things.

First, I was outside nearly all day yesterday and I was so invigorated that I wasn’t ready to go to bed until nearly midnight. My normal bedtime is around 9:30 or 10 PM, and it is embarrassing that my teenage son often tucks me in. I was certainly tired from all the work in my small garden and yard, but absolutely fed by the bright spring day, the many chores I did, and the birds and squirrels zipping around. And I slept very well.

Second, I just signed onto David Suzuki’s 30×30 Challenge which means I will go outside for at least 30 minutes each day in May. The goal of this for me is to change my habits to ensure more outdoor time. For the Suzuki Foundation it is a way to assess attitudes from a broad range of people before and after focused attention to outdoor-time, and begin to develop data on our benefits from nature.

Third, I’m glad I have a porch so I can be outside and enjoy this time more easily, even in the rain. As an architect, I need to keep porches and other sheltered yet outdoor spaces in mind!

So why do we care about outdoor time? We are just beginning to truly understand the influences of outdoor air, airflow and the sounds of outdoors. We are also re-recognizing the positive effects even simple references to nature can have on our total health. Here are some quotes from the January 2016 issue of National Geographic, which is focusing this year’s reporting on the history and benefits of our National Parks.

  • Forest walks can decrease one stress hormone by as much as 16%
  • Nature can improve creativity by up to 50%
  • Virtual nature is soothing, too…[when experiencing a] virtual forest with singing birds..their heart rate soon recovers the normal rhythm [after stress]

There is currently a great increase in attention in the building and planning professions to our interdependence with nature. Notice that the term “interdependence” means a strength of understanding and relying on the benefits from nature for us, and the benefits we also can create for nature to rely upon. People are often wary of that term, but recognizing that no one person or entity can be all things all the time is a strong and intelligent revelation.

Metropolis Magazine has published several pieces on biophilia and how we can rely upon nature’s presence to benefit human health and comfort. Here is one on Light, Color, Gravity and Fractals and their effect on our well-being. Another article I ran across is about 7 cultural concepts that we don’t really have in the culture of the USA. Read it if you have a couple of minutes as it reassured me that man and nature are truly connected. We benefit from recognizing that fact and from building upon the connections.

Though several of the concepts mentioned are directly nature-tied, such as “forest-bathing” as a method of improved physical healing, and “free-air life” which bolsters emotional strength and serenity, the concepts most revealing to me are more subtly related to nature. They benefit from the processes and skills and experiential facets of nature. I almost typed “the natural world” there, but that would once again separate us from nature and that is truly not so.

For example, “wabi-sabi”, which is the practice of embracing the imperfect, is absolutely rooted in nature’s strength of purpose. There are so many paths to the end goals, and we should understand this in our design work as well. Set the goal of zero net energy, for example, and get there in a variety of ways. Embrace the complexity, the redundancy and the perceived imperfections. Humans seem to think that perfect is the goal, but nature, which we must learn from, is not perfect. Nature is effective, however. Every seed that does not sprout is still food for other systems, and though patterns exist in nature, over and over, the daisy with the bent petal is just as much valued as any other.

In addition, a Disney-World rendition of nature impresses us, but we are not nearly as content or engaged in such an environment. Our favorite parks are a bit shaggy in places, such as a long-lived Central Park and the Highline that is just starting to be “grownup”, and many city parks where water flows without hard, defined structure. We like the precise tulip beds but we play in the rambling and unplanned hilly areas.

“Kaisen” is a term you may have heard in LEAN or Six-Sigma training, and it calls for a continual improvement methodology. This is another nature-based notion. Plants and animals adapt and change not only themselves but their surroundings in every season. This is currently evident in the human-triggered adaptation of bacteria, which is now continually improving at a faster rate to resist the toxins we apply in the form of overused antibacterials.

Safely in my 'yak

Safely in my ‘yak

I would also point out the two concepts for “cozy”. This is cozy at a depth we feel in our core. Such a moment can make the likes of me a bit weepy, because it is so perfect and nostalgic and supportive a feeling. There is also a similar Dutch word, “gezellig”, that I clutch to my breast quite often. If you think about it a bit, you’ll realize these feelings of coziness are truly only possible when the environment outside that space or that moment is unfriendly: a bit cold or wet, busy or emotionally unmanageable. Think of the joy of being in a kayak in a swift river or on the ocean. Or having a beer and French Onion Soup in your favorite local bar when night is falling. This is one aspect of biophilia, where we enjoy the feeling of shelter while seeing an expansive and unprotected vista, and we settle into safety while peering over an edge or dancing across stones in a brook. The contrast of safety and risk are part of “gezellig” and part of our response as a component of our natural world.

Above all, I have learned from the concepts in biophilia and the cultural relationships to nature we’ve briefly explored that in the USA we need to re-learn that we are nature and what we create is not only part of the built environment, but part of the natural environment.  We are not doing ourselves or our world justice until we recognize this synergy and work to develop the connections more thoroughly and with purpose.

Be greener, and get outdoors,

Jodi

 

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