As previously mentioned at Croakey, the inaugural international Healthy Parks Healthy People Congress is underway in Melbourne this week.
Associate Professor Mardie Townsend, from Deakin University, is chair of the program committee, and writes below of the need for nature-based health interventions:
“John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club – the largest grassroots environmental organisation in the USA – said in the early 1900s: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”
This statement reflects an innate affinity between humans and the natural world, which has been labeled ‘biophilia’, and which relates to our evolution in the company of other species – a situation which has changed only relatively recently with industrialisation and urbanisation.
Muir’s claim seems to be supported by a variety of research over the past four decades, including work which showed that recovery following gall bladder surgery was more rapid and less painful when patients had a view of nature from their hospital window.
Other research has shown that views of nature can reduce crime, increase productivity and promote community cohesion; that contact with nature can lower blood pressure and reduce depression;, and that access to nearby green-spaces can encourage physical activity.
Given that this link between contact with nature and human wellbeing was recognised 100 years ago, and has been verified by research since then, I wonder why it is not more widely recognised in mainstream health research and health practice, as well as in the design of hospitals and urban areas?
Perhaps it’s a bit like Australia’s attitude to solar energy – a field in which we led the world a few decades ago, but in which we now lag behind other countries, many of which do not have the natural advantages we have in terms of weather!
Are we as a nation reluctant to adopt the easy and the obvious, preferring instead to demonstrate our sophistication by pursuing complex solutions to the problems we face?
I’m not suggesting that contact with nature is the ‘be all and end all’, the solution to all our health woes, any more than I am suggesting that our sole source of energy should be solar.
But perhaps the NH&MRC – a key agency distributing funds for health and medical research – could do more to encourage research on nature-based health interventions.
And perhaps the Rudd Government’s National Health and Hospitals Network proposal could encourage the design of health care facilities and programs which optimise views of and interaction with nature for patients and staff. Why aren’t these (and other obvious strategies) adopted as a matter of course?
I suspect there are three key factors here:
- That there is limited research evidence in this area based on the ‘gold standard’ randomised controlled trials typically used in medical research, and those in charge of the purse strings are loath to take a punt on something which isn’t an absolute certainty (if, of course, there is such a thing!);
- That we as a nation have increasingly become ‘technophiliacs’ – that is, we have fallen in love with the quick fix, technological approach to problems, including our health problems and are ignoring the biophilia within us; and
- That the various professions implicated here operate in silos, rather than recognising the inter-relationships between them which could enhance the outcomes of their work.
It’s time for us to become truly sophisticated by taking a time-machine trip ‘back to the future’ to 1875.
Perhaps then we would recognise our dependence on nature, just as John Muir did when he said at that time: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” John Muir (1875)