The natural secrets of urban well being

Butterfly street art

But I don’t feel afraid. As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in Paradise.

Exactly 30 years ago, in April 1984, the journal Science published a seminal paper in environmental psychology. The study compared the recovery of patients in two sets of hospital rooms, identical in every respect except one. Patients in half of the rooms looked through a window to trees in a park. Patients in the other rooms faced a brick wall. The author, Roger Ulrich, wondered whether exposure to nature improves human well-being, and his experiment tested whether the patients who viewed the park recovered more quickly after surgery.

Ulrich’s analysis of hospital records showed that patients who gazed at the park complained less, took fewer pain killers, recovered more quickly, and went home earlier than those who stared at the brown brick wall. His landmark paper is often cited as a clear demonstration of the importance of the natural environment for human health and well-being.

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On re-reading the paper 30 years later, it is easy to argue that its findings are somewhat over-rated. The question is awesome, the execution wanting. For centuries humans have built windowless dungeons to sap the human spirit. Does the study demonstrate the benefits of nature or, instead, does it confirm the damaging consequences of an absence of visual stimuli? The soul destroying impact of laying sick, and staring at a bare brick wall.

Would Ulrich have found the same result if the patients who overlooked the park instead saw a concrete school yard or train station? After all, Ray Davies wrote one of the most uplifting songs of the 1960s after gazing from a window at Waterloo railway station – But I don’t feel afraid. As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in Paradise. While Pink Floyd wrote one of the dreariest songs of the 80s about, well, brick walls; dum dee dum, you’re just another brick in the wall. No wonder the wall patients took more pain killers.

View from a  window

Perhaps a view – of anything – is all we need to improve our outlook? We can never answer this question from Ulrich’s original paper. Nevertheless, despite its limitations, his study was immensely valuable. Ulrich’s work catalyzed decades of research that clearly demonstrates the beneficial effects of nature on human well-being.

If a view through a window can hasten recovery from surgery, how do we benefit from the environment that surrounds us every day? Does our health and well-being improve if we live among birds and leafy trees? To answer this big question, Gary Luck and colleagues at Charles Sturt University (where I work) recently published a study that:

… examined whether variation in bird and plant communities in residential neighborhoods is related to the personal and neighborhood well-being… of residents.(Luck et al. 2011, p. 817)

The researchers analyzed over 1000 questionnaires completed by residents in nine regional cities in south-east Australia. (I described tree cover and socio-economics of the nine cities in an earlier blog). The surveys contained lots of questions about residents’ satisfaction with their life (personal well-being) and neighborhood (neighborhood well-being). Other questions focused on demographic factors such as age, gender, income and the like.

The group then measured ecological features in each suburb, such as the cover of plants, the level of urban development (cover of concrete and house roofs) and the number of species and abundance of birds. They analyzed the data to see whether personal and neighborhood well-being were associated with natural features (such as bird diversity and vegetation cover) or demographic factors (such as income and gender) or both.

The legacy of Ulrich’s research: calming gardens at Tokyo International Hospital. Source: Popular Mechanics.
Ulrich’s legacy: the calming gardens at St. Luke’s International Hospital in Tokyo. Source: Popular Mechanics.

They found that the best (and simplest) statistical model to understand patterns of urban well-being contained four demographic factors and no natural features at all. People with the highest levels of personal and neighborhood well-being tended to be older, own their own home, have a higher income, and keep physically active. These factors affected human well-being much more than the number of birds and trees in a suburb.

Disappointed? Don’t be. Perspective is crucial. Roger Ulrich found that a view through a window improved recovery after surgery. Yet we all know that our medical condition, not a window frame, determines how long we stay in a hospital. If we compare the length of hospital stays across all patients – think cat scratch versus cancer – then the presence or absence of a window is trivial; patients with more severe problems stay longer. But a window can improve recovery rates for patients with some medical conditions, as Ulrich found.

Similarly, it’s no surprise that age and exercise affect our well-being more than the number of trees in our suburb. This, of course, raises the question: is exposure to nature associated with improved well-being for particular groups of people; those of a certain age or gender? To re-phrase the question in talk-back radio parlance:

A friend of a friend of mine in his mid 40s spends too much time on his computer (and lies about his age); might he feel better if he lived in a leafy suburb full of birds?

After controlling for demographic factors, Gary Luck’s team found that human well-being is related to natural features for many (but not all) groups of people. For example, women living in leafy suburbs had higher levels of personal well-being than women in more urbanized areas. People who undertook little physical activity showed a similar trend.

The wheel of human well being
Our local environment is one of many factors that can boost human well being.

Single people who lived in suburbs with more birds, trees and less concrete were more satisfied with their neighborhood than single people in more urbanized suburbs. Indeed, the analyses showed that many groups of people in leafy suburbs had higher levels of neighborhood well-being than comparable groups of people in more urbanized areas.

Does exposure to the natural world increase our well-being? The study by Gary Luck and colleagues suggests the answer is yes – provided that our other needs are also met. Moreover, the authors suggested that stronger effects may be found in cities that are larger than the nine regional towns they sampled:

In major metropolitan areas there is likely much greater variation in the level of urban development and natural features than in smaller human settlements, and analyses of the relation between human well-being and natural features in metropolitan areas may identify a stronger effect of urbanization on well-being or connection to nature.(Luck et al. 2011, p. 825)

What are the secrets to urban well-being? None of us can quickly change our age, income or gender. Some of us can move to a more leafy suburb. All of us should get more exercise. The big secret – the secret the bureaucrats don’t want you to know about – lies at the very end. When all else fails, we can ask to change the hospital room. To a room with a view … of trees, nature, a sunset and – if Ray Davies got it right – of paradise.


Professor Gary Luck and Dr Dave Kendal kindly fact-checked this story. The top photo of Nick Walker’s amazing street art is from My Modern Metropolis. Thanks to Max Bourke AM from Canberra for the photo of the beautiful car park in Séguret. This is the fourth in a series of posts on urban trees.

Further reading

Don't forget the repeat photo monitoring competition that's running all year.
Don’t forget the repeat photo monitoring competition that’s running all year.

Luck, G.W., Davidson, P., Boxall, D. & Smallbone, L. (2011) Relations between urban bird and plant communities and human well-being and connection to nature. Conservation Biology 25, 816-826. [Full article available for free at this link].

Matsuoka, R.H. & Kaplan, R. (2008) People needs in the urban landscape: analysis of Landscape and Urban Planning contributions. Landscape and Urban Planning 84, 7–19. [Full article available for free at this link].

Ulrich, R. (1984) View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science 224, 420-421. [Full article available for free at this link].

Velarde, M.D., Fry, G. & Tveit, M. (2007) Health effects of viewing landscapes–landscape types in environmental psychology. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening 6, 199-212. [Full article available for free at this link].

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13 thoughts

  1. Whilst there are no surprises here for this 60 yr old, Ian. I’m glad you can confirm, why I pinch myself each morning, and say “geez how lucky am I”. Even when a flock of raucous Corella’s cloud the sky at sparra’s fart, I know how lucky I am, living in a small country town, away from Smelbourne.

    1. Hello Brian, thanks for writing in. Like you, I appreciate the benefits of living in a smaller regional city rather than a big metropolis, although I do like visiting regularly to catch up on things. Best wishes Ian

  2. Ian, yet another interesting piece and I am glad you found a use for the picture. One good example of the concepts of beneficial effects from a “natural environment” to hospital patients lies at the heart of the work by the extraordinary UK landscape architect Charles Jencks, whose work I greatly admire. When his wife was dying with cancer he established, or maybe she did, I am not sure of the order of this, a Trust to design and build cancer palliative care facilities around the UK with a focus on large scale tee/grass settings right into the facility. It has produced some remarkable landscapes but I do not know whether anyone has ever researched the outcomes for patients versus other facilities.

  3. I’m dubious about research like this, Ian, because the people conducting the research are almost certainly interested in nature themselves and this invites the types of contamination via unconscious bias that double blind trials were designed to overcome in areas of science that required the utmost rigour (medical research etc).

    I wish everybody found nature as interesting as I do, for instance today I watched in utter fascination as a small skink did backflips and summersaults as it tried to bite a very fat ant in half. But I know it isn’t so and it is getting less and less so as information and communication technologies improve. I have 20 nieces and nephews and not one of them would allow a nature buff under any circumstances to pry their game devices and smart phones from their cold dead hands, if I may be permitted to paraphrase Charlton Heston 😉

    1. Hello Mel, thanks for writing. It’s good to be skeptical about the methods used in studies. To me, the main point abut the last study above is that documents self-reported well-being rather than actual medical conditions. The two have been shown to be associated, but are obviously different. I can’t see where personal bias would be a big issue though.

      Double blind experiments are the gold standard for research, but are often impossible to do. In this case we might have to experimentally and randomly assign people to live in certain areas (and not allow them to move for many years) and then experimentally add or remove trees from half of the suburbs and then monitor health outcomes. The results from such an experiment would be more convincing than those from a survey but this approach is clearly unethical and immoral, in our society at least. This means we have to use the best evidence we have available. I’ll hopefully discuss this more in the next blog. Good luck with those wonderful nephews and nieces! Best wishes Ian

    1. Hello Bruce, thanks very much for linking to the posts from your great site. I hope your readers enjoy them, and that many readers follow the links back to your site to read more of the great articles you have collated. Best wishes Ian

  4. Hi Ian, I greatly enjoyed your urban series – there’s still a real gap bwn the research & practice communities and your work is part of building the bridge between the two. You may be interested that the Gardens in Adelaide has been collaborating with a range of partners (esp Adelaide Mount Lofty NRM Board, Renewal SA & Planning SA) on green infrastructure policy & practice in South Australia with great engagement from professional community esp AILA, PIA, UDIA & NGIA. My pin-ups are Paris, Singapore & Bogota – for delivery vision, governance & industry capacity are the key, best,Stephen Forbes

    1. Hi Stephen, thanks very much for writing in, I’m glad you enjoyed the blogs. Despite the challenges we face there are some amazing initiatives for improving urban spaces in Australia and around the world. It’s great to hear of more still. I hope your work in Adelaide continues to go well. Best wishes Ian

  5. Great post. Really interesting topic and excellent to see an assessment of the evidence, not just a bolt to a conclusion that we like the sound of anyway!

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