Designing for happiness

Landscaping for happiness would mean bringing elements of this sun dappled forest into our towns and cities. Photo by Betsey Crawford.

I’ve begun to wonder if I am addicted to a forest where I often walk. My area is full of great hikes, including one out my door. But time and again, I choose to drive through my town to the trailhead of another hike. I start down the path and am immediately happy. The combination of greens, glinting sunlight, and the sweet, spicy scent of bay laurel leaves is all it takes. This makes me think, as we work to re-green our cities, that we should call it landscaping for happiness.

There is a lot of science behind this pleasant idea, along with six million years of evolution. Our earliest ancestors lived in trees and later walked through grasslands punctuated with stands of them. When my genetic cohort left Africa, they moved north and east into the dense northern temperate forests.

Trees became sacred to my ancestors, the Celts, as they have to many cultures. I spent five of my earliest years running through the woods. On that history alone, I could expect to revere the forest. 

The best parks bring elements of the forest into the heart of the city. This wonderful photo of the curves of a bridge through the curve of a tree was taken in New York City's Central Park by Jet Low. Via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
The best parks bring elements of the forest into the heart of the city. This wonderful photo was taken in New York City’s Central Park by Jet Low. Via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

But that doesn’t explain the addiction. Science does that. New research shows us how important the green world is for our health and happiness. Two books, Richard Louv’s The Nature Principle and Florence Williams’ The Nature Fix, are filled with studies documenting the vital link between human well-being and access to nature. Not nature as wildness, necessarily. It needs to be accessible to all. The photos accompanying this essay show how we can bring nature to us.

Something as simple as a tree outside a hospital window will lessen the need for pain medication and shorten hospital stays compared to patients looking out on a wall. A view of trees from a classroom will increase concentration and raise test scores.

Skills we value — cooperation, problem-solving, motivation, inventiveness — are all enhanced when people engage with nature. Self-esteem rises, the ability to stay calm increases, and conflicts ease. Family bonds strengthen.

A colorful wedding in the colorful Portland, Oregon rose garden. Photo by Betsey Crawford
A wedding in Portland, Oregon’s magnificent public rose garden

Neighborhoods with more trees have healthier people living in them, no matter their income. But poorer neighborhoods have far fewer trees and green spaces. These barren areas, Williams points out, make it possible to see poverty from space. When we talk about social justice, the ability to live among green, breathing plants needs to be part of the conversation. 

The happiness and awe that nature inspires are addicting in themselves. But there are also chemicals involved. Trees, flowers, soil, and fungi give off aerosols comprising various terpenes to communicate among themselves. Some of these are obvious. The phytochemicals given off by the bay laurels and redwoods along my favorite hike share spicy scents, all the more intense the warmer it is. But the air is full of these molecules, even without a noticeable smell. Some of the health benefits of being in the woods come from inhaling them.

This year's winner at the Royal Horitcultural Society's Chelsea Garden Show in London is this exquisitely peaceful Forest Bathing Garden designed by Ula Maria for Muscular Dystrophy UK. Photo by Neil Hepworth, courtesy of the Royal Horticultural Society.
This year’s winner at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Garden Show in London is this exquisite Forest Bathing Garden designed by Ula Maria for Muscular Dystrophy UK. Photo by Neil Hepworth, courtesy of the Royal Horticultural Society. Following the show it will be moved to a hospital in Glasgow, Scotland.

These essences create essential oils and perfumes. In Japan, where shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is a national pastime, people bring home the bottled scents of hinoki cypress for their calming effects. Williams’ blood pressure dropped ten points after breathing it in. Other studies indicate that these compounds can have anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, and neuroprotective properties.  

One experiment showed that three days spent in nature amps up our natural killer cells, an effect that can last for a month. But as little as twenty minutes lowers our blood pressure and slows our heartbeat and respiration. Even one minute spent looking at a photo of a natural scene produced kinder reactions compared to test subjects who looked at an interior. Awe expands our sense of self, placing us in the larger Earth community.

A culture of front yard gardens blossoms in red and lush green along a city street in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Photo by Betsey Crawford
A culture of front yard gardens blossoms along a city street in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Being in nature shifts our brains from the executive functions of chugging through our to-do lists to the brain’s sensory regions. This provides a profound rest for our ever-busy frontal lobe. Williams tells the story of taking a friend who loathes nature into the wilderness for three days. He hated it! Too cold, too many bugs!

But when he got home to his treasured city neighborhood, the writer’s block he had suffered for months was gone. Organized studies reveal a 50% boost in creativity from spending time in the green world. Something creative thinkers since Aristotle have told us.

Homo sapiens’ history is 300,000 years old. Throughout that time, we relied on the natural world for our very existence. We didn’t gather into cities until 10,000 years ago. The Industrial Revolution is less than 300 years old. The digital revolution that has us glued to screens for seven hours a day is only 50 years old. We evolved to be among green, growing things. To take our cues from clouds, animals, plants, soil, rocks, rain, wind. 

A unit of shelves holding many thriving plants create a green wall with a fountain in a cafe in Telluride, Colorado. Photo by Betsey Crawford.
Walls of plants are showing up all over the world. Here is an easy one to make and maintain at a cafe in Telluride, Colorado

In those hundreds of thousands of years, we have proved ourselves endlessly adaptable. But the speed of recent change has meant we are living in a world of cement, glass, asphalt, brick, and technology. Our Stone Age wiring can’t keep up with this rapid change.

Cities are growing faster than any other habitat. In the U.S., 75% of the population already lives in urban areas. There are environmental and social benefits to living in dense clusters. So we need to reconcile our innate need for nature with the reality of city and town life.

That takes thoughtful planning and design. Too much of it happens outside the public’s view and is driven by commercial interests, not the health and happiness of inhabitants. But we can knock on closed doors and work to change the mindset that utility and automobiles should be the major drivers of urban planning. 

A green wall with swirling patterns in green in Mexico City. Photo by Thelmadatter via Wikimedia Commons.
A more formal green wall in Mexico City. Photo by Thelmadatter via Wikimedia Commons.

The first questions about a planned development could include ‘How many trees?’ instead of ’How much parking?’ They could be ’How beautiful will this be?’ before ’How do we maximize usefulness?’

They are all important issues. It isn’t even a question of priorities. Usefulness and beauty, green plants and roads, cars and pedestrians are easy to blend if we have the vision and spend the time to design our spaces that way.

We can park under trees and walk to our offices among native plant gardens humming with pollinators. Empty lots can flower into parks. Those big box parking lots could have as many trees and shrubs as cars. Parking can be underground or spread out, interspersed with green oases. Walls can turn green, like the one above.

Yes, it all requires care, but that creates satisfying jobs. As every gardener knows, nothing is so happiness-producing as helping green things grow.

Kilburn Grange Adventure Play Park, designed by Erect Architecture in London, England. Created in an old arboretum, the playground is inspired by the way children play. Photo by Erect Architecture.
Kilburn Grange Adventure Play Park, designed by Erect Architecture in London, England. Photo courtesy of Erect Architecture.

There are so many things we can do, but we have to choose to do them. Starting with our children. Too many playgrounds and schoolyards are asphalt deserts. Why not the wondrous playground above, designed around the trees of an old arboretum?

We may not be accustomed to thinking of such things as choices, but they are. Amsterdam, now known for its biking population, was once as choked with car traffic as midtown Manhattan. The city chose and implemented a different path. Car traffic is accommodated, but it no longer dominates and defines the landscape.

There is always resistance. People want the ease of convenient parking. Stores are afraid of losing customers. Prospects of traffic jams rise as cars are shunted away from pedestrian-only streets.

Time after time, these fears have proven to be unfounded. Traffic doesn’t snarl in well-planned routes. Strolling pedestrians are more likely to go into stores than people speeding by in cars. As my favorite urban planner, Brent Toderian, says, we aren’t closing these streets, we’re opening them up to more life.

A bright green sign with white letters and figures of children playing showing what an area closed to traffic is open for.

Green efforts are worldwide. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, is one of a growing number of elected visionaries who prioritize greening their cities, limiting car traffic, and fostering safe bike traffic. Seville, Spain recently installed 50 miles of bike paths.

Extraordinarily productive ecological niches called mini forests are being planted in cities worldwide. A few years ago, I spent a sunny June Saturday learning about beekeeping on a public rooftop garden across from San Francisco’s City Hall.

In South Korea, the city of Seoul deconstructed two levels of an elevated highway down to the ancient streambed that ran underneath. Now, a haven of green 3.6 miles long is rejuvenating a declining industrial area. By coordinating the removal with improved public transit, traffic improved.

The new waterway boosts flood control. The temperature of the surrounding area can be 3.3-5.9 degrees Celsius cooler than other neighborhoods. After this success and devastating heat waves in 2018, Seoul built the Forest of Winds, a forest park designed to bring cooler air into the megacity.

Seoul, South Korea neighborhood before removal of an elevated highway. Photo from Seoul Metropolitan Government.
Photo from Seoul Metropolitan Government
The Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration Project in Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Graywoodsurrey via Wikimedia Commons.
The result of the Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration Project. Photo by Graywoodsurrey via Wikimedia Commons.

The picture below was taken inside the Jewel Changi Airport in Singapore. As someone who spent decades using the menace to sanity known as La Guardia Airport in New York City, this looks like heaven. New York, though, scores well in The Trust for Public Land’s Park Score. Ranking at number twelve of the 100 largest cities in the U.S., 99% of New Yorkers are within a 10-minute walk of a green space, large or small. The score does not, however, measure tree canopy, one of the crucial markers of a truly green city.

The tiers of green garden in Jewel Changi Airport in Singapore. Photograph by Mike Peel via Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph by Mike Peel via Wikimedia Commons.

That is the goal of the European Economic Commission’s 3-30-300 project, an outgrowth of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. Under it, each household member would be able to see three trees. All neighborhoods would be cooled and calmed by a tree canopy of 30%. Every house would be within 300 meters (about a quarter of a mile) of a green space.

What a change that would make! All these efforts worldwide are making a difference. If you asked anyone on this planet if they would prefer to live with more nature around them, you would get an almost unanimous yes. Except for certain policymakers, you wouldn’t have to pull out studies to convince people. We are wired for green.

We don’t want to live in places shorn of nature, though we all too often let it happen. The challenge is expanding our sights beyond what we have been willing to accept as normal. There are a lot of problems we can’t solve in the short term. But this is one of the easier ones. Once we have the vision and the will to follow through, it just takes shovels. 

An apartment building in Milan, Italy brimming with green plants on every balcony. Photo by Victor via Unsplash.
Everyone can join in! A sustainable apartment building in Milan, Italy. Photo by Victor via Unsplash.

I’d love to have you join me! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new monthly posts.

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