Shutterstock

The less city you can see through the trees, the better for your brain, new research suggests.

Last month we explained how parks can restore much of the mental fatigue imposed on our brains by the busy city. The psychological evidence for this concept, known as the "attention restoration theory," is quite clear. What would be great to know, as I noted at the end of that post, is precisely how many trees it takes to recover the cognitive strains of urban life.

Well sometimes the gods of semi-obscure-hybrid-behavior-nature-academic-publications listen to your calls. In an upcoming issue of the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, a group of Finnish researchers describe recent work that just so happens to address our exact curiosity. They conclude that restoration reaches peak potential when every inch of the city — which they term the "urban matrix" — escapes our vision:

Our results showed that perceived restorativeness in urban forests was strongly affected by closure of view to the urban matrix through the forest vegetation. This means that perceived restorativeness was higher inside the forest with a closed (i.e. no) view to the urban matrix as compared to semi-closed and open views.

For the study, the researchers identified nine patches of boreal forest in greater Helsinki that bordered the "urban matrix" — in this case either a housing development (some single-family units, some flats) or an urban road with a steady flow of traffic. Within each nature site the researchers found three viewing points that offered a clear open look at the urban matrix (below, A and B), a partial glimpse (C), or no view of the road or homes at all (D).

Next, they recruited 66 people of all ages from the metropolitan area. Each study participant visited two of the viewing points at one of the nature patches and completed a questionnaire on the restorative potential of that particular site. The results followed a clear linear pattern: as one's view of the urban matrix increased, the perceived cognitive restorativeness of the park decreased. (There was no statistical difference between a view of the road and that of the homes.)

The work lacks a bit of force for its methods. While the researchers focused on "attention restoration theory," they provided only a questionnaire of perceived restorativeness as opposed to direct cognitive tests of attention. The questionnaire they used has been validated in previous empirical settings, but it's certainly a weaker measurement than, say, the "backwards digit-span task" used by other psychologists studying urban parks.

Still the findings provide urban planners with some nice food for thought. The most intriguing conclusion to be drawn here is that the size of an urban park isn't nearly as important as the density of its vegetation. Even when a nature site borders an urban road or housing development, it can function as a restorative place so long as it offers easy access to a dense interior. In other words, the ultimate goal is not to see the city for the trees.

Image via Hauru, K., et al. Closure of view to the urban matrix has positive effects on perceived restorativeness in urban forests in Helsinki, Finland. Landscape Urban Plan. (2012), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2012.07.002.

Photo credit: drpnncpptak /Shutterstock

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Equity

    The Side Pittsburgh Doesn't Want You to See

    Pittsburgh filmmaker Chris Ivey has spent over twelve years documenting the lives of the people displaced so that the city can achieve its “cool” status.  

  2. Construction workers build affordable housing units.
    Equity

    Why Is 'Affordable' Housing So Expensive to Build?

    As costs keep rising, it’s becoming harder and harder for governments to subsidize projects like they’ve done in the past.

  3. Environment

    Obesity Thrives in the Suburbs

    A U.K. study finds a clear connection between density and obesity—and even rural areas fare better than suburban ones.

  4. Transportation

    How Seattle Bucked a National Trend and Got More People to Ride the Bus

    Three experts in three very different positions weigh in on their city’s ridership success.

  5. The 560-foot-tall Juche Tower in Pyongyang, North Korea.
    Videos

    Seeing Pyongyang in 360 Degrees

    A photographer in a microlight aircraft shot 360-degree video over the secretive North Korean capital.