Sensory interaction with nature and observing greenery in parks, gardens and forests is scientifically proven to be effective in alleviating human vulnerabilities. And if there is no greenery, art offers an alternative.
According to statistics published by the OECD last April, in 2021 27% of people in the 15 countries monitored were at risk of depression. This existential malaise has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Nature can be a source of well-being. Seeing natural landscapes creates positive feelings and stimulates creativity and self-esteem. It makes people happier. We’ve all experienced this, but we may not know that walking in nature is a real therapy, scientifically proven and recognised to improve moods and lower anxiety levels. Exploiting the benefits of nature has positive effects both in treating emerging unease or established pathologies, but above all, it is extremely valuable in preventing disease and promoting health.
In Canada, a country where attention to complementary medicine is growing, GPs have started prescribing walks in the nation's wealth of national parks together with traditional therapies. The PaRX program, sponsored by the BC Parks Foundation and supported by the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change to promote mental health among the population offers passes that give access to 80 parks.
Therapeutic guidelines by Canadian physicians like Melissa Lem, PaRX programme director, recommend 2 hours of immersion in nature per week in cycles of at least 20 minutes.
In Japan, Shinrin Yoku - otherwise known as forest bathing, or green therapy – has a recognised therapeutic role: it involves sensory immersion, a mind-body engaging walk, a gaze exercise, breathing plant-produced oxygen to boost respiration, lower stress hormones and blood pressure, strengthen the immune system and increase lymphocyte activity. It is the effect of light, colours and sounds, from rustling, to the wind, the flow of water, animal noises, the scents of volatile substances, touch and tastes.
Some trees are more beneficial than others because of their emissions and balsamic properties. Fai della Paganella, in Trentino, is home to Parco del Respiro, a heritage site of majestic beech and fir trees that has become the centre of forest bathing in Italy, with the first course leading to a diploma for forest therapy instructors, with a special focus on children and the differently-abled.
Nature and well-being: what science says
Theories about the beneficial relationship between humans and nature have grown and been endorsed over the years, by a range of studies also aimed at identifying its relevance.
Since the end of the last century, starting in the United States, landscape architects, environmental sociologists, psychologists, doctors and administrators have ascertained that nature and gardens help both prevent and cure through scientific research in health care facilities.
Milestones in research include that of 1972 and 1981 by Professor Roger Ulrich professor of architecture at the Centre for Healthcare Building Research at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, who first demonstrated that patients who enjoyed a view of greenery had lower morbidity, shorter recovery time and less need for pain medication. Roger Ulrich's Stress Recovery Theory is based on the premise that gardenshelp mitigate stress in that they:
- create opportunities for movement and physical exercise
- provide opportunities for choice, such as privacy, experiencing a sense of control, or situations that encourage relationships, creating social support
- offer healthy breaks and distractions
This was confirmed in the 1990s, by the ART (Attention-Recovery Theory) developed by psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, professors of Psychology at the University of Michigan, who are world-renowned in the field of environmental psychology and research into the relationship between humans and the environment and the effects of nature on people's health.
In 2017, a study conducted by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Bringham at the Women's Hospital in Boston showed how large areas of green space can improve women's quality of life and mental health and have a close positive correlation with longer lifespans.
Greenery comes to hospitals
Also dating from the 1990s is the research by Clare Cooper Marcus, a landscape architect and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. This involved observational studies of over 1,000 people who frequented gardens, with hundreds of qualitative interviews in four California hospitals in the San Francisco Bay Area.
It resulted in guidelines, published in 1991 in Healing Gardens: Therapeutic Benefits and Design Recommendations, which are still the cornerstone of care pathways based on therapeutic gardens. The Healing Gardens at the Legacy Health Center in Portland, USA, perfectly embody this vision found in so many hospitals around the world.
But if it’s not possible to have a garden, because a hospital is located in a city centre, Turin's S. Anna Hospital, the largest women’s hospital in Europe, has found the answer in art, creating immersive environments indoors to view natural landscapes, promoting both a therapeutic response in patients and the well-being of caregivers.
Thanks to the Medicina a Misura di Donna Foundation, a leader in research into the relationship between the arts and health, expert photographer Franco Fontana recently transformed the intensive care and maternity hospital rooms with large-format photos that patients can lose themselves in, on a soothing, imaginary walk.
Greenery heals. In hospitals, as in every work and living space, it calms, reduces stress, offers time and energy and is the first step towards well-being.
By Catterina Seia and Monica Botta
Monica Botta, landscape architect, expert in Healing Garden, Politecnico Milano