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Nature and the City: Redesigning the Built Environment for Health and Wellness

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, cities across the country and around the world were in lockdown, forced to restrict access to public spaces. As infection rates declined and restrictions gradually eased, residents flocked to available greenspaces in drovesparks became a source of refuge for many. At the same time, the pandemic is highlighting a shortage of parks and inadequate greenspace for numerous citizens, particularly those living in densely populated cities.

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A healthy city is a green city; a healthy urban dweller a park-goer. There is ever-growing evidence that local access to greenspace and greenviews positively impacts physical health, mental well-being and the overall resilience of a citydefined as its capacity to survive, adapt and grow in the face of adversity.

Easy access to greenspace, urban parks and nature has been linked with improved human health—everything from better immune function, mental health and cognitive capacity to a reduction in type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular morbidity. Proximity to greenspace has been correlated with lower rates of psychiatric disorders. Beyond this, a city of well‐connected, attractive greenspaces may be better equipped to bounce back from crisis, natural disasters and extreme weather events. These benefits extend to all population groups, particularly marginalized and low income segments. 

The science is still emerging  and more research is needed, but initial findings and anecdotal reports show promising results: a walk in the woods may be just what the doctor ordered.

Urbanites Turn to Nature in Times of Crisis

The idea that, in the face of crisis, human health and our cities can be restored by nature is not a new idea. From Indigenous cultures around the world to the  late 18th century Romantics, history is filled with examples when humanity has turned to organic medicines and nature for healing and a sense of respite.

Leap forward more than a century and Google mobile data reveals that droves of citydwellers took refuge in nearby nature and outdoor activities at the onset of the global pandemic. One study estimated that outdoor recreational activity increased by 291% in Oslo, Norway during the recent lockdown relative to a 3-yr average for the same days.  

Similarly, preliminary findings suggest that visits to New York City parks this summer grew compared with before the COVID-19-triggered shutdown. New Yorkers reported continued use of urban greenspaces during the pandemic and considered them to be more important for mental and physical health than before it began. In Philadelphia, community gardens and urban farms were declared an essential service.

Nature and the City

Density Isn’t the Problem, Equitable Access to Greenspace Is

There has been a tendency to blame urban density for the rapid spread of COVID-19, leaving some to question the viable future of city life. But density isn’t the problem, according to a growing number of urbanistscrowding is.

Increasing equitable access to greenspace may be the biggest hurdle to countering such crowding and creating more resilient cities. In the U.S. alone, 100 million people (28 million children included) do not have a neighborhood park within a 10-minute walk from home. The good news is, progress is being made. It’s all part of a concerted effort called the 10 minute Walk, a nationwide movement championed by The Trust for Public Land, National Recreation and Park Association and the Urban Land Institute. The program is enlisting mayors from across the nation to improve access to parks and green spaces.

Along with improving more equitable access to public parks and recreational amenities, urban designers and architects in cities across the country are increasingly looking for innovative ways to weave greenspace into the built environment.

Bringing nature indoors.

Most people in North America spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, either at home, work, or in spaces like retail stores, restaurants, schools or other public buildings. In response, designers are bringing the great outdoors inside by integrating natural elements into building design, sometimes referred to as biophilic design. This design style is increasingly used in built environments to boost occupant well-being through connection to nature and the use of natural elements like views of nature, natural light, plants, water and exposed wood.

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Weaving Nature into the Built Environment 

Gardenhouse

Gardenhouse, a mixed-use multifamily project in Los Angeles, California, is a recent example of this trend, making the deep integration of greenspace central to its design. Conceived by MAD Architects to feel like a naturally vegetated hillside village, the 18 residential units, completed in late summer, feature the country’s largest greenwall of its kind. 

With seamless transitions between indoors and out, members of the Gardenhouse community enjoy expansive, open-concept floor plans with towering window walls and outdoor living spaces. Gruen Associates, who served as both the executive architect and landscape architect for the project, worked closely with the designers to bring a vision of nature-infused urban living to life.

The multifamily residence includes a purposeful mix of housing types to encourage a diverse community-feel: two studios, eight condominiums, three townhouses and five villas. The development’s concrete podium is crowned with a shimmer of white pitched-roofed units constructed of light-frame wood construction, while the interior finishes pay tribute to California’s woodworking heritage. A second floor courtyard forms a central landscaped gathering space for the complex. In many respects, the development acts as a demonstration project of what is possible.

Gardenhouse
Courtesy MAD/Gruen Associates
Gardenhouse
Courtesy MAD/Gruen Associates
Gardenhouse represents a unique opportunity to impact not only the architecture of Los Angeles but to introduce a new paradigm of living where humans are more emotionally connected to nature.
Ma Yansong
MAD Architects

Keeping Your Cool With Vegetation and Organic Materials like Timber

In the face of rising temperatures and a warming planet, weaving greenery into urban infrastructure not only offers biophilic benefits, but it can also help offset the heat island effecturbanized areas that experience higher temperatures due to closely packed and paved surfaces—afflicting so many of today’s cities. Increasing urban vegetation and green roofs, and reducing the use of high-density materials like concrete or bricks in favor of timber helps to counter this effect. 

Explore Tips for Reducing Heat Island Effects

Finding Solace in Nature
The Ark at Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospice

The Ark launched in late 2019 as a new highly sustainable facility for Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospice, specifically designed to support children with life-limiting or life-threatening conditions.

Nestled in a 7.5-acre urban nature reserve in Barnet, North Londonthe largest London borough by populationThe Ark, designed and delivered by Squire & Partners, with landscape by Gensler, features biophilic nature-inspired design strategies inside and out. The interior includes the use of natural organic materials including an exposed timber-oak-framed structure with floor to ceiling glazing and clerestory windows giving views to nature while flooding the space with ample sunlight.

“As designers we have a huge responsibility to deliver high-quality environments that facilitate the connection between people and place, and improve their physical, psychological and social wellbeing. Understanding the stress that clinical environments can cause, the landscape at Noah’s Ark was designed to provide a safe and restorative outdoor setting where the children and their families find respite and comfort,” said Alicia Gomez, associate at Gensler.

Nature Connects Marginalized Communities

Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson Apartments

Biophilic design and greenspace is connecting marginalized communities with the healing power of nature. One notable example is the Richardson Apartments. The 120 residential studio units combined with common areas and program space provides formerly homeless individuals with accommodation. The social housing is complemented by a courtyard and topped with a vegetable roof garden.

 

Giant chain ferns, Japanese painted ferns, western sword fern and wood sorrel form an urban oasis. These plants were selected for their low-maintenance and adaptability to the extreme solar conditions of full sun and deep shade. Five stories above the courtyard, a roof deck offers a space for residents with seating areas, succulent gardens, raised beds for vegetable gardening and a green roof.

Richardson Apartments
Credit: David Baker

Midrise Wood Construction Delivers Affordable Access to Nature-Inspired Design

Designed to provide permanent residences for low-income, formerly homeless adults, this five-story project consists of 120 studio apartments. The architect used wood as the primary structural material because of its relative cost savings compared with concrete and steel. Wood was also left exposed throughout the interiors to add warmth, variety and texture to the common spaces. This classic mixed-use urban infill project achieved GreenPoint Rated certification, and was a WoodWorks Wood Design Award winner.

Garden City 2.0: Building Long-Term Resilience and Health

In times of hardship and crisis city dwellers throughout history have turned to nature for hope and healing. Today, equipped with a growing body of research and compelling data, city builders are beginning to confirm what folk wisdom has taught usthat nature and greenspace woven into the fabric of our urban environments is good for our health. The concept of a garden city is a practical response to building stronger, more resilient cities

As Will Allen, director of strategic conservation planning at The Conservation Fund in Chapel Hill, NC writes “if a post-COVID world can move towards more people-centered social infrastructure investment, with ambitious goals for nature in cities and biophilic design, then our financial investments in nature will be rewarded with less crowded and more resilient cities, which will hopefully also lead to a more equitable and healthy country.”

And this investment may very well begin with a walk in the park, just ten minutes from home.

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