Access to nature is key to reducing stress levels, but how effective are our parks and reserves at taking us away from the hustle and bustle of city life?
Dr Zoe Myers from the Australian Urban Design Research Centre at the University of WA is investigating ways urban designers can positively influence mental wellbeing.
She said town planners could also benefit from incorporating insights from disciplines like science and psychology into their work.
She told ABC Radio Perth that for many of us, life in the city led to “sensory overstimulation”, and rates of depression and anxiety were significantly higher for city dwellers.
“The hustle and bustle of everyday life, the noises, the sounds, the light, really has a cumulative effect on our nervous systems.
“We find after a while that it increases that fight-or-flight response in us and we stay on high alert a lot of the time.”
Crashing waves or thundering truck?
Dr Myers said there was a great deal of research that suggested access to the natural environment had a restorative effect.
“You could have two corresponding sounds that were actually at the same decibel level, like a truck thundering down a freeway compared to a crashing wave on a beach, and people would find the truck very stressful but find the waves crashing very relaxing.”
She said we should be incorporating this scientific understanding of the benefits of nature into urban design.
“I think it’s unrealistic that people are going to leave city life in droves.
“Living in cities has many benefits, so it’s really about incorporating nature back into our urban areas.”
More than lawn and a few trees needed
While town planners often include green space in their urban designs, they are not the kind of spaces that encourage people to spend time in or which take them away from the stimulus of the city, according to Dr Myers.
A semi-bare park with lawn and a few trees will not do much for the residents of a suburb.
“We are not lacking green space, it’s more about the quality of that green space,” she said.
“Research has really found that the more that nature seems like real nature, the more that it seems like a real habitat, the more those restorative effects will influence us.
“In Perth, as well as other Australian cities, we are very addicted to turf.
“We like a lot of flat lawn in our parks.
“While that has its place, I think we have become too reliant in thinking that is the only way to design a park.”
An immersive experience
The best parks encourage people to linger and create an immersive experience.
“One of the best examples is Hyde Park in Highgate,” Dr Myers said.
“Because of the topography, once you are in it you feel quite immersed and away from the surrounding busy streets.
“If we think about nature as something that helps us escape our everyday stresses, that goes a long way in thinking about how we should design.
“I think with Perth growing, there is going to have to be more dialogue about how we want to develop the city and if we want to continue going as we have, or if we will revisit some of those ideas and think about ways that we could serve a denser population.”
This piece was first seen on ‘ABC News’ 31 August 2017.