Like many eco-minded moms, I recently read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods and came away with a firm belief that human beings need, on a basic, primal level, the therapeutic value of an ongoing relationship with nature.
It appears that the science agrees: studies have concluded that overall health can be predicted by how many green spaces exist in a one-mile or three-mile radius; children with ADHD concentrate better after being in a park than in an urban setting; college students test better when their room offers a view of nature; the elderly live longer when they have ready access to natural settings.
Interestingly, the opposite appears to also hold true. According to Frances Kuo, a professor at the University of Illinois,
“Humans living in landscapes that lack trees or other natural features undergo patterns of social, psychological and physical breakdown that are strikingly similar to those observed in other animals that have been deprived of their natural habitat. In animals what you see is increased aggression, disrupted parenting patterns, and disrupted social hierarchies.”
“Humans are evolved organisms and the environment is our habitat,” Kuo said. “Now, as human societies become more urban, we as scientists are in a position to look at humans in much the same way that those who study animal behavior have looked at animals in the wild to see the effect of a changing habitat on this species.”
In the cityscapes most barren of natural scenery, Kuo and her University of Illinois colleague William Sullivan found that the crime rate was higher, by a variation of up to 7 percent. They claim that these areas harbor “decreased civility, less supervision of children outdoors, more illegal activity, more aggression, more property crime, more loitering, more graffiti and more litter”.
Kuo and Sullivan refer to this as “soiling the nest”- something that is not characteristic of healthy creatures.
I find this line of thinking fascinating. We are so aware of how urbanization and industrialization encroach on the habitats of tropical birds, polar bears, and wolves. We attempt to preserve their natural spaces, so that they are better able to provide for and protect their offspring.
Yet, we do not apply the same reasoning to the preservation of the human habitat.
Humans have evolved within the context of their natural environment, and in these last few centuries- even the last few decades, really- the environment has been dramatically sullied and changed. It makes perfect sense to me that this would put undue stress on our mental and physical states, as we are unable to physically evolve as quickly as our environment, and that we as a species would react with aggression and fear.
However, I am also heartened to learn that the human animal is resilient. These studies indicate that we are able to derive physical, psychological and social comfort from whatever natural spaces we encounter, even in the heart of a city.
Simply being near trees, noticing the buds as they bloom, or taking note of the flight and song of backyard birds, is rejuvenating and essential. What is required of us, as parents and citizens, is to make sure that some sort of green space is available to everyone, and that we make time to spend time in them.