Urban Landscaping: The Best Medicine for Urban Dwelling

I grew up in the rural Midwest countryside, trees and fields of crops spread out for miles in all directions, not a want for anything because I was too young to know that anything, whatever it was, existed, and much of what constitutes “anything” nowadays wasn’t even a thought back then. Who could have imagined the endlessness of 21st Century smart phones, streaming videos and traffic jams back in the early 1980s?  The era of video games was just beginning. 

I grew up outside. My friends ask if I was raised in a barn, and my answer is always yes, gladly so. My hobbies included creating new trails and paths in the woods to walk along, walking around the block with my friends, and the occasional ATV ride with my dad, an engineer and gardener who tried as hard as he could to live off the earth and land. 

My dad spent nearly all his free time chopping down dead trees for firewood or working in his vegetable garden, growing tomatoes and bell peppers and carrots and strawberries and lettuce and watermelon and zucchini. He’d eat it all straight off the plant. “God made dirt so dirt don’t hurt,” he’d tell me.  

I came to understand that my father believed much more in dirt than in God, but to me, they are one and the same. 

Now I live in a city, a beautiful city that is rife with arts and culture, music and entertainment, opportunities and challenges, traffic jams and crowded sidewalks and concrete and concrete and more concrete. Every day, the concrete here grows wider and higher. When it does die, it is always replaced by something much larger, noisier, more invasive.

Of course, the concrete is necessary, because concrete is convenience and connection. It’s the roads that we drive on to see our friends and our families, it’s the buildings we work in and drink in and eat in and see movies in and meet people in. It’s the apartments we live in and the place we see our doctors when we’re sick.  It’s the grocery store, the gas station, the shopping mall. Concrete is the home for all the stuff of humankind.

But concrete is not the home from which we came. It is not the thing that feeds us, that energizes us, that inspires us.

While urbanites tend to be physically healthier than those in rural areas, we are much more likely to suffer from mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. Why? 

I believe it’s the lack of nature.

There is no question that spending time in nature positively affects the human brain. This is shown by study after study after study. Among the many findings: 

·     Long-time Alzheimer’s and dementia sufferers experience decreased symptoms after spending time in gardens;

·     Children and adults who take a 50-minute walk through nature experience have shown greater increases in cognitive functioning, self-esteem and improved moods, as well as greater decreases in mental fatigue and blood pressure over those who take a walk through urban settings;

·     People with parks or tree clusters within a 1 km radius of home experience significant improvements to their mental health; and

·     Autistic children in natural environments have increased attention spans, reduced response times and improved moods.

Unfortunately, many people don’t recognize the full value of nature in our urban lives, or are quick to devalue it when compared to how they value other “necessities,” such as money, housing and entertainment. We didn’t move to the city for the trees, so why should they be a priority? They fail to identify urbanization as a drug or disease that causes higher blood pressure, increased anxiety, mental health disorders, fatigue and decreased memory. 

Why are tree-lined streets considered “beautification” projects instead of public health programs? 

Why is workplace green space considered a luxury instead of a necessity, the same as desks and telephones? 

Why is gardening seen as a chore and not a therapy, the same as yoga and meditation?

Landscape architects understand, mostly, the health benefits of what they do, but few market their work for its health benefits. Few see themselves as specialized doctors for societal ills. Our industry was born in the arts, not in the science, but as research builds, our industry’s message to clients, governments and the world needs to evolve. Landscapers do not just beautify the ugly, protect our buildings and properties, and create nice spaces for people to relax in. Landscapers are doctors and surgeons operating on our urban environments, and I am grateful.