After 20 years of creating green spaces where people can retreat from the stresses of urban living, Tom Stoner and his colleagues at the TKF Foundation have developed an intuitive sense of what makes such a place work.
Through a program called Nature Sacred, TKF has built dozens of temporary green refuges from the stresses of modern life, mostly in the Washington-Baltimore area. They do it at universities, in tough inner-city neighborhoods, in hospitals, and in prisons. The foundation has collected some 20,000 written comments from journals stashed under the benches in these oases.
"People write about how peaceful they feel." says Stoner, who founded TKF Foundation with his wife, Kitty, in 1995. "They write about how it’s brought them closer to loved ones, family, and friends. They say things like, 'It’s reset my system and my mind,' or, 'It makes me feel clean.'"
None of that anecdotal evidence, however, proves what Stoner knows in his gut: that people derive countless health and psychological benefits from being in a well-designed place where they can withdraw from the driving energy of the city and reconnect with nature. Now, with six grants to projects around the country, Nature Sacred is looking to see if science will bear out intuition.
The foundation just announced $4.5 million in funding for the six projects, in which scientists from a number of different disciplines – neuroscience, immunology, genomics, and others – will work to study the effects of specially designed spaces on people living in an urban environment or who are otherwise under stress.
"We know there’s something very powerful going on in these spaces," says Stoner.
The teams of designers and scientists will work in locations that cover a wide spectrum of environment and experience:
At Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, the Green Road Project will create a wheelchair-accessible area of pavilions and landscaped gardens in a wooded area on the hospital campus, where hundreds of soldiers are receiving treatment for traumatic injuries suffered in the line of duty. Scientists will measure their well-being using biomarkers of stress, such as cortisol; journaling; and genomics.
In tornado-devastated Joplin, Missouri, and hurricane-stricken Queens, New York, social scientists working on the Landscapes of Resilience project will look at how new green spaces "can contribute to community resilience while supporting recovery from an array of major crises — human, natural, technological and even political."
Using existing green spaces created by Nature Sacred in the Baltimore, Maryland, area, researchers will measure the immune response of three different groups: low-income people with significant long-term life stress; immuno-compromised chemotherapy patients; and a group of people with healthy immune systems.
In an attempt to isolate what exactly provokes a positive response to nature, a project called Measuring What Works for Healthy Green Spaces will show people images of design elements from spaces that already exist and measure their responses using MRI brain imaging, testing of cortisol levels, and journal analysis.
At the Naval Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, designers will build a "restorative landscape" in the form of a meadow that will provide a retreat from the surrounding industrial environment. Local public high school students and community members who live in assisted housing nearby will participate in a study conducted by the head of NYU’s Applied Quantitative Research Methods Program that measures their response to the new space.
At the Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland, Oregon, designers will create a "healing garden" in a space that is currently a hardscaped terrace. The research will follow three groups of patients, families, and nurses to gauge the effects of the natural environment on their stress levels and mood.
"Of course we have no idea how it’s going to come out," says Stoner, who adds that the studies will go on for three years. But he is looking forward to the results.
Stoner embraces the term "sacred," which isn’t one you hear much in daily conversation. "It’s not in any way a religious idea," he says. "It’s a sense that these spaces are important, intimate. It’s about our individual, personal relationship with nature."
Now, he says, with the development of better tools to assess stress levels and neurological response to stimuli, the time has come to measure that ineffable relationship. Stoner thinks that quantitative proof of the health benefits of well-designed green space could go a long way toward encouraging better funding of the kind of places that we need to maintain our physical and mental health in a rapidly urbanizing world.
"Most people I think feel better in nature," says Stoner. "Intuitively we know this. But we live in an era that we have to prove things scientifically."
All images courtesy of TFK.