Why is it important to encourage nature and wildlife near the home?

Copyright 2001 Anna Jorgensen, University of Sheffield - discussion paper prepared for the Overvecht study - Utrecht

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Benefits of urban nature

1.1 Benefits to health

1.1.1 Views of natural scenes from hospital windows aided patients' recovery from gall bladder surgery (Ulrich, 1984).

1.1.2 Prisoners with views of nature reported sick less often (Moore, 1982); and suffered fewer stress-related physical symptoms (West 1985).

1.1.3 Grahn found that children from a kindergarten in a natural setting had fewer absences due to sickness than children from an urban kindergarten (1997).

1.1.4 Exposure to natural scenes reduces stress (Ulrich et al, 1991). This is likely to have long-term physiological health benefits, as medical evidence suggests that stress has an adverse effect on health by reducing immunocompetence or resistance to illness (Parsons, 1991).

1.1.5 Relatively small amounts of physical exercise/activity have a beneficial effect on health. Amongst the elderly, regular exercise is associated with a reduction in depression (Palleschi et al, 1998; McMurdo and Rennie, 1993; Weyerer and Kupfer, 1994; Ruuskaanen and Ruoppila, 1995); improvement of satisfaction with life (McAuley et al, 2000) and improved neuropsychological functioning (Satoh and Sakurai et al, 1995). Similar results have been reported in relation to adults from younger age groups (Paluska and Schwenk, 2000). Regular exercise is also known to have physiological benefits, including reducing the risk for osteoporosis (Klibanski et al, 2001) and cardiovascular heart disease (Francis, 1996). Hence residential environments that encourage people to interact with them by taking regular exercise as recreation, or as a means of travel, indirectly have significant psychological and physiological benefits.

1.2 Social benefits

1.2.1 Interaction with complex natural environments has many benefits for children. Scandinavian studies indicate that playing in nature has a positive impact on children's social play, concentration and motor ability (Bang et al, 1989; Grahn, 1991; Fjortoft, 1995, 1998, 1999; Grahn et al ,1997). Diversity in vegetation and topography enhances the ability of the natural playscape to improve motor ability (Fjortoft and Sageie, 2000).

1.2.2 A recent American study confirmed that green play settings improved children's concentration: children with Attention Deficit Disorder were found to function better than usual after activities in green settings (Faber Taylor et al, 2001).

1.2.3 A series of American studies carried out in both high and low-rise public housing projects in Chicago made a number of findings.

· Spaces with trees in the Chicago public housing developments attracted larger groups of people, consisting of people from more diverse age groups, than spaces without trees. The findings suggested that the presence of trees aided social interaction and created opportunities for informal supervision of children and outdoor areas (Coley et al, 1997).

· The presence of trees in these Chicago public housing developments was also found to be connected with stronger neighbourhood ties and a sense of community amongst the elderly (Kweon et al, 1998).

· A survey using photo simulations found that the introduction of trees and grassed areas into hitherto hard urban landscapes in the courtyards of these Chicago public housing developments had a positive effect on both preference and sense of safety (Kuo et al, 1998).

· Children's play in the courtyards of the low-rise Chicago public housing developments was found to differ with the presence or absence of vegetation. Children in spaces with vegetation played more, and played more creatively then children in spaces with little or no vegetation. Furthermore, the children in the spaces with vegetation received twice as much supervision from adults than the children in the spaces without it (Faber Taylor et al, 1998).

· Residents of high-rise urban public housing adjacent to vegetation were significantly more able to cope with their major life issues than those who lived in identical housing without vegetation (Kuo, 2001).

1.2.4 Views of natural elements from workplace windows were found to buffer the negative effect of job stress on intention to quit, and to have a similar, albeit marginal, impact on general wellbeing (Leather et al, 1998).

1.2.5 Views of natural scenes from the road were found to aid recovery from stress and immunise against future stress (Parsons et al, 1998).

1.2.6 In an American study the majority of respondents mentioned parks, gardens, or trees when asked to identify a feature of special significance to them that had been damaged by Hurricane Hugo (Hull et al, 1994). Hence it would appear that urban nature can be closely linked to people's sense of identity and personal history. This is particularly significant in the light of findings in Britain that 75% of young people have no sense of local belonging (Opinion survey by MORI conducted for the Barclays Site Savers initiative, 1996).

1.2.7 Bussey's study explored the plurality of meanings that people hold for urban woodland, finding that such woodland is experienced as woodland garden, doorstep recreational nature, symbol of the pastoral idyll, wildlife sanctuary and gateway to the natural world (1996).

1.3 Physical benefits

1.3.1 Urban trees can also perform an important physical function in improving microclimate, lowering air pollution, mitigating noise and flood control (Givoni, 1991).

Public preference for urban nature

2.1 Research on the relationship between environmental preference and the health and social benefits listed above is still ongoing (Hartig et al, 1998). However, a reasonable hypothesis would be that most, if not all, of the benefits would be associated with natural environments that people prefer.

2.2 The question then is what types of natural environments do people prefer in urban settings? Broadly speaking, conventional wisdom has it that Westerners prefer open parkland of the kind associated with eighteenth century English landscapes (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989 ): a rolling, open landscape of cropped grassland and mature specimen trees. Hand in hand with this view of landscape preference has been the view that more naturalistic ecological landscapes characterised by an unmown diverse grass and herb layer and multi-layered woodland and woodland edge are not preferred and/or are considered unsafe (Parsons, 1995).

2.3 The open parkland landscape was adopted wholesale by the designers and planners of many new European residential developments in the twentieth century: in particular by the designers of post-war, high-rise, high density housing in open parkland, based upon the "Radiant City" of Le Corbusier (1923). This approach was responsible for some of the most devastating failures in public housing of the twentieth century and its shortcomings are well-documented (Coleman, 1985).

2.4 It was partly a reaction to such landscapes that produced the ecological landscapes of the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, such as Biljmermeer in Amsterdam and Buitenhof in Delft. As is often the case with pioneering movements, the approach was sometimes extreme. Ecological imperatives took precedence over design and public perception of safety and preference. For a number of reasons management of these landscapes failed to match up to the original design objectives. With this legacy many designers and planners are now justifiably wary of creating ecological landscapes in close conjunction with housing.

2.5 The studies that have contributed towards the view of environmental preference referred to above have, for the most part, been landscape preference studies carried out using visual stimuli, without reference to the actual context in which these landscapes might exist. Such studies do not tell a great deal about the kind of landscapes people want on their doorstep or in their district, about the different functions that such landscapes might serve, or about delineation between the public and private domain. Recent research indicates that these questions are far more complex than the landscape preference studies would suggest. The research and examples set out below suggest answers to these questions.

2.6 In 1999 a major survey of public opinion about nature and greenspace in people's surroundings (leefomgeving) was carried out on behalf of the Ministry of Land Use, Nature and Fisheries (Reneman et al, 1999). 3118 people throughout the Netherlands took part in the research. The results are sometimes contradictory. Relevant findings are as follows:

· A majority of people throughout the Netherlands ranked woodland as their favourite type of nature out of 11 possible types. Parks in cities and towns were ranked sixth.

· Likewise the majority said their preferred natural characteristic was nature going her own way without human influence; they identified rambling as their favourite pastime in a green setting; and said their favourite experience in a green setting was relaxation.

· More people thought it was important for woodland and parks in cities and towns to be accessible by car or public transport than within walking distance of their homes.

· 88% of those questioned thought that woodland was present within a radius of 16 kilometres from their homes. 91% thought that parks were present within this radius.

· Only 32% overall of those questioned thought there was insufficient woodland within this radius. However this percentage rose to over 50% in the Randstad and Zeeland, West-Brabant, and Zuid-Hollandse eilanden. 48% overall thought there were insufficient parks within this radius. This percentage was fairly constant throughout the Netherlands.

· A majority of people throughout the Netherlands were satisfied with the travelling distance to woodland and parks in cities and towns.

· Respondents were asked to identify which type of nature they wanted more of in a radius of 16 kilometres from their homes, and which land use they would be prepared to give up to make room for their preferred type. Most respondents identified woodland as their preferred type and most wanted fewer commercial buildings in exchange.

· When asked the same question in relation to a radius of 4 kilometres from their homes, respondents wanted firstly more parks, and secondly more woodland, again at the expense of commercial buildings. 48% of all respondents thought that nature was very important in their immediate surroundings (circle with radius of 0-4km).

· Respondents were asked for their preferred nature configuration in two scenarios. Scenario one was a choice between a large nature area further away and small areas of nature and greenspace close to home. 57% said they would prefer small areas of nature and greenspace close to home. Scenario two was a choice between a large nature area accessible via a dull unattractive route and small nature areas accessible via attractive routes in green settings. 79% said they preferred small nature areas accessible via attractive routes in green settings. These percentages were fairly consistent throughout the Netherlands.

· When asked what advice they would give to make nature in the Netherlands nicer, more beautiful and more exciting, the following were the top 3 items chosen: less and more selective building, allowing nature to go her own way with less intervention, and more green in built up areas, with more parks in residential districts and better maintenance.

· Finally, respondents were asked why they found nature attractive. 54% said that it was because of what they could experience in natural surroundings, e.g. tranquillity, quiet relaxation and adventure.

2.7 In a landmark British study Burgess et al (1988) examined the views of urban dwellers about their urban greenspace using qualitative methods. They discovered that what people sought in urban greenspace was a diversity of natural and social facilities within local areas. They conclude:

"Wildernesses which provide adventures and creative play for children need to be integrated with environments in which other users feel comfortable too. In other words, nature does not have to be confined to nature parks or school grounds. Natural and wildlife corridors should be incorporated into the communal greens of housing estates and urban developments. When such areas are close to home, they may be more readily policed by people. When juxtaposed with areas that are designed and managed as social spaces, they provide the 'adventures in safety' that so many adults desire for their children."

However, they also sound a word of warning:

"it is not sufficient to let public spaces become more wild without making it clear that people are also invited to use them….in most cases this will not be achieved without providing professional staff trained as rangers and community workers rather than as gardeners and keepers."

2.8 In an authoritative and definitive study of urban woodland in the British New Town of Redditch: woodland comprising ancient woodlands as well as woodlands created contemporaneously with the New Town, Bussey (1996) states:

"A woodland visit is not an 'occasional event' that has to be planned and prepared for. Where the resource is locally available, it is an important part of everyday urban life. This highlights how important it is, that in order that they function as people require them, the woods should be conveniently located on the doorstep, within the urban fabric, not on the urban fringe or in the open countryside." (Author's emphasis)

Bussey goes on to define exactly what is meant by "on the doorstep" and this detail is given in part 3.

2.9 Recent research also suggests that preference for woodland with a dense understorey varies according to the spatial configuration of the woodland (Jorgensen et al, in press; Purcell and Lamb, 1998). Dense understorey was considered safer and was preferred in a more open spatial configuration. In other words it is not the case that people dislike dense understorey per se, but rather that in general they do not want to be forced to come into contact with it.

2.10 The use of denser understoreys and edge treatments therefore has to be considered in the context of the design as a whole. The important thing is to give people choices, and to make those choices legible (Luymes and Tamminga, 1995).

2.11 Recent research also suggests that people have a high preference for flowering herbaceous vegetation in meadow style plantings in public settings (Dai, 2000; Jorgensen et al, in press). They like colourful meadow no matter whether it is low, medium or tall. A problem with such plantings has been adverse public reaction to seasonal variations in the vegetation. However, recent research also suggests that people will not only put up with seasonal variations, but come to like them, once they are more familiar with them (Ash, 1992; Mynott, research in progress). Hence there is a strong argument for public education and involvement in the creation of wildflower meadows. The experience of the wildflower charity Landlife in Britain is that local communities respond extremely positively to the creation of wildflower meadows in public open spaces close to their homes (Lickorish et al, 1997). The district of Knowsley, in the Liverpool area, has been transformed by such plantings. Landlife also places a great emphasis on public involvement and education.

Blueprint for ecological design in urban settings

3.1 Connectivity

A considerable body of research indicates that urban greenspaces should form part of green networks or corridors (for an excellent review, see Barker, 1997). There are many reasons for this, too numerous to summarise in this paper. Connectivity between urban greenspaces enhances their ability to fulfil the functions referred to earlier in this paper and also increases their ability to meet ecological objectives.


Fig 1 Connectivity

Rather than being seen as an isolated incident urban greenspace should form the setting for development wherever appropriate and possible. Here buildings with widely differing uses and infrastructure are integrated with a continuous network of green settings- ranging from the naturalistic to the formal- that ultimately connects with a larger green network in the open countryside. Urban green networks or corridors are the ideal setting for cycle routes and recreational pathways.

3.2 Urban woodland - criteria derived from Bussey (1996)

· The overall preferred walking distance is 650 metres.

· The journey to the wood is an integral part of the recreational experience, especially if the route is relatively flat, hard-surfaced, physically and visually segregated from a highway, visually attractive and not severed from the home by major uncrossable roads.

· A moderate walk of up to 700 metres complements rather than detracts from the woodland experience, although over one third of respondents in Bussey's study (1996) preferred a walking distance of 325 metres or less. Hence provision should be made for access to a choice of woodlands within 300-650 metres of the home.

· Woodlands of 7 hectares are considered satisfactory in terms of size by all, but 2-5 hectares will provide a satisfactory woodland experience for most. Woodlands of under 2 hectares are valuable for doorstep adventure play, but only provide a satisfactory woodland ambience for 40% of people. Shape is particularly important for small woodlands of less than 5 hectares, which should be configured so as to maximise depth to give sufficient enclosure, variety and complexity to provide interest for a visit lasting about an hour.

· 58% prefer mixed woodland, 17% deciduous and 2% coniferous. Canopy density of 35-85% is acceptable but around 65% is preferred. Interestingly, Bussey's study (1996) did not support the conventional wisdom that people prefer large mature trees. In her study people derived as much pleasure from relatively young plantations as they did from the ancient woodland sites.

· Hard surfaced paths with lighting are welcomed, as are car parks, signposted walks and nature trails and information leaflets.

3.3 Urban woodland - criteria derived from Dowse (1987)

Dowse makes a number of recommendations about how to handle the interface between woodland and adjacent dwellings. First and foremost he confirms the importance of the woodland edge, as an ecotone to give ecological diversity, to add visual interest and to create a diversity of spaces for social and recreational activities. Problems that are commonly encountered in urban woodland adjacent to housing are unauthorised rubbish disposal, erosion due to indiscriminate access, a reduction in light to dwellings, and an abrupt vegetation edge. His solution to these problems is to create an extensive interface of a minimum of 500 metres between the dwellings and the woodland.

3.4 Gradation from formal to naturalistic landscapes

There appears to be no published research on public perception of naturalistic woodland vegetation located close to people's homes: as part of the landscape of the street or courtyard. Such research is currently ongoing (Jorgensen, research in progress - Landscape Dept. University of Sheffield). A safe approach would be to build in a gradation from formal to naturalistic landscapes:

"In principle the whole range of intensive to extensive green should be explicitly present in the design, in as many shapes as possible. You owe it to culture to build in a natural gradation, it is the way to achieve differentiation, which is the crucial matter. It does not do to apply only a single general standard or vision to green structures, by which all designs are measured. Imagine what would happen if such a principle would be adopted in music: Debussy is too expensive, it cannot be done: Messiaen does not fit in to the overall view. The right approach is to counterweigh extensive, large-scale schemes automatically by small-scale capital intensive-investments." Andre de Jong, urban architect at Emmen, in the Netherlands, until 1991, quoted in Leopold, 1996).


Fig 2 Interface

The interface between dwellings and naturalistic landscapes should consist of an intensive and extensive landscape. The intensive landscape, close to the dwellings, is characterised by more formal plantings and structures, lighting, and a range of facilities such as children's play areas and trim trails. This intensive area acts as a busy buffer zone between the more naturalistic landscape and the dwellings allowing residents to feel safe within this landscape and within the dwellings themselves. There is then a gradual transition to the more extensive naturalistic landscape. This transition is characterised by creative use of the woodland edge to create spaces for different activities, as well as the introduction of other habitats such as meadow, open woodland and wetlands. Residents have a clear choice as to which landscape they want to use, and when.

3.5 Urban meadows

Again there appears to be no formal research on urban meadows, but it appears to be generally accepted by landscape managers and designers that differential mowing can be very effective in gaining public approval for wildflower meadows. The thinking is that clear pathways, and a mown edge to these pathways, gives a cared-for appearance and increases public confidence in the schemes. Likewise the creation of a legible relationship between the meadows and the grassland areas designed for more intensive use can be achieved through differential mowing regimes.


Fig 3 Mown strip

It is generally accepted that a mown strip beside pathways in or alongside meadows increases preference for meadows in urban settings.

3.6 Woodland belts as screens

Woodland and tree planting has long been used as a means of juxtaposing incompatible land uses. Where naturalistic woodland is used, characterised by several layers or storeys of vegetation, the resultant woodland belt should be a minimum of 15 metres wide to enable phased coppicing and thinning of the belt without loss of structural integrity (Personal communication, John Day, Warrington Borough Council, 2001).


Fig 4 Woodscreen

Here a naturalistic woodland belt is used to screen traffic from recreational users of the adjacent greenspace. The woodland belt must be a minimum of 15 metres wide to enable staged coppicing/thinning of the understorey whilst maintaining the screening properties of the woodland belt see figures 5-7.

3.7 The Borrowed landscape

Woodland should never blot out familiar landmarks or views. These should always be retained to respect residents' sense of connection with the landscape and as an aid to spatial orientation.


Fig 5 Borrowed landscape

The borrowed landscape of familiar landmarks and views should be retained, particularly at strategic points where users are likely to value a sense of familiarity or where they will need to way-find.


Fig 6 Borrowed landscape

The borrowed landscape of familiar landmarks and views should be retained, particularly at strategic points where users are likely to value a sense of familiarity or where they will need to way-find.


Fig 7 Borrowed landscape

The borrowed landscape of familiar landmarks and views should be retained, particularly at strategic points where users are likely to value a sense of familiarity or where they will need to way-find.

3.8 Legible landscapes

Naturalistic landscapes in urban settings should be legible: their extent and purpose should be readily apparent. Users should never be forced to use landscapes that they personally consider unsafe. Hence alternative, open, well-lit and hard-surfaced paths and cycleways should be provided along strategic routes and desire lines and these should be clearly differentiated from their counterparts in more naturalistic settings.


Fig 8 Legible choices

Where naturalistic landscapes are used in urban settings users should be given a legible choice of alternative routes so that they can decide how close they want to get to these landscapes.

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Latest update : 3 May 2001