Nature doesn’t just have an effect on the mind. Roger S. Ulrich, PhD, director of the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University, has found that nature can help the body heal, too.
In his most well-known study, Ulrich investigated the effect that views from windows had on patients recovering from abdominal surgery. He discovered that patients whose hospital rooms overlooked trees had an easier time recovering than those whose rooms overlooked brick walls. Patients able to see nature got out of the hospital faster, had fewer complications and required less pain medication than those forced to stare at a wall.
Like other researchers, Ulrich has found that simply viewing representations of nature can help. In a study at a Swedish hospital, for instance, he found that heart surgery patients in intensive care units could reduce their anxiety and need for pain medication by looking at pictures depicting trees and water.
These and other findings form the basis of Ulrich’s theory of supportive design, a series of guidelines for designers of health-care facilities. To soothe patients, families and employees, he says, facilities should incorporate such features as nature views and nature-related art in patients’ rooms, aquariums in waiting areas, atria with greenery and fountains and gardens where patients, family and staff can find relief.
Of course, what people see isn’t the only aspect of the environment that has an impact. Gary W. Evans, PhD, a professor of human-environment relations at Cornell University, studies the effect of noise pollution.
“One of the interesting things about work on restorative environments is to think about the question of restored from what?” says Evans.
Evans has found that noisy environments have effects that go beyond hearing damage. In a study of first- and second-graders, for instance, he found that children attending a school with airplanes flying overhead scored 20 percent lower on word recognition tests.
Even small amounts of noise can be harmful. Evans has found that clerical workers exposed to conversation and other mild office noise showed higher stress levels and gave up on performance tests faster than those with quiet offices did.
City planners, architects and others need to pay more attention to this and other research from environmental psychologists, says Evans.
“Architects think of themselves as sculptors and see what they’re doing as leaving their signature on the landscape,” he notes. “But architecture has profound implications for human health and behavior.”