Ecopsychology and the Built Environment

We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature – for we will not fight to save what we do not love.

–Stephen Jay Gould (1993)

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Delicate Arch at Arches National Park

I had the great pleasure of spending last weekend with friends and colleagues at an event called Jumping Mouse, a gathering of wilderness therapists, outdoor guides, and others associated with the outdoor industry. The event gets its name from a rites of passage story commonly told to students in wilderness therapy programs by their guides and facilitators. I attended as a former guide, but also as a city planner (in training) studying the relationships between humans and their surroundings. I posed the following question to a group of attendees:

How does your experience in wilderness influence your experience in and around the built environment?

This question grew out of my personal experience. When I decided to leave the urban settings of the Bay Area and move to Moab, UT to work as an adaptive recreation guide, I could not have known how much the landscapes of southern Utah and the Colorado Plateau would positively influence my life. I experienced nature as a child and young adult, but never developed a deep bond with the natural world in my neighborhood or in a place we visited on vacation. Those years of guiding also had me spending most days and nights outside, during which I built a cognitive and affective bond with many places. I continue to build upon those relationships with a deeper sense of how important my surroundings are to my mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. And as I endeavor into the field of city and regional planning, I wonder about the role of nature in healthy human development. Personally, I cannot foresee accepting a life with less exposure to nature. My health depends on it.

I hoped that in hearing others’ experiences I might discover some principles that city planners should weave into their work. The Jumping Mouse participants had plenty to say.

Respondents noted that they often felt anxious, depressed, constricted, or frustrated after returning to an urban environment after multiple days in a natural setting. One woman stated that she felt “duller” when she was surrounded by excessive consumerism and material wealth in urban environments. Many spoke of the simplicity of wilderness experiences, and contrasted that with the almost paralyzing complexity of technological city life.  Others talked about lessons of acceptance, tolerance, connectedness. Many referred to their willingness and desire to build relationships with small groups of people they spent time with outdoors, but not necessarily in more densely populated areas. One woman noted that by observing the small parts of nature in a city – a bird flying by, a breeze touching her skin, a patch of undeveloped land – she felt somewhat satiated, and didn’t feel compelled to always search for that “epic mountaintop view.”

The participants often responded with dualistic language. It seemed that they lived in two separate and distinct worlds. For some, this distinction translated to value judgments – wilderness is good, domestication is bad. For others, it meant that transitions were difficult and occasionally unsuccessful. But when the conversation expanded and participants followed different lines of thought in an organic fashion, the dualism withered away. The distinctions between wilderness and city still existed, but they no longer overshadowed the continuum of the human experience.

Between the content of respondents’ answers and the language used to express them, what might planners take away from this conversation? At a minimum, the conversation gives credence to the diverse experiences residents need to be happy and healthy. It is also proof that the ecological crisis is a crisis of the psyche. Our path to sustainability (or resilience and adaptability) includes a stark confrontation of our individual and collective psyches.

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Yoga at Jumping Mouse

One of the tasks we have in this endeavor is restructuring the language we use to describe ecological perspectives on planning. What does it really mean when we refer to the human-nature relationship? Aren’t humans part of nature? How do we differentiate between urban, rural, and wilderness? Ecosystem boundaries rarely align with political boundaries. Our words and phrases inform our views and actions, so we need to find ways of moving beyond the dualities of our language. We might benefit from decreasing the emphasis on urban-rural-wilderness distinctions and increasing the emphasis on relationships between organisms and their varied environments. Humans, of course, are just one of many species to consider.

I recently attended a conference on ecopsychology in St. George, Utah. It was hosted by the Utah Psychology Association and brought together roughly 50 academics, practitioners, independent researchers, and interested individuals. The conference spanned two full days and included talks on a variety of subjects including the use of nature in therapy, open space planning, epigenetics, and Carl Jung’s Red Book. The conference concluded with a sunrise ceremony facilitated by Chief Arvol Looking Horse, spiritual leader of the Lakota Nation.

The emerging field of ecopsychology aims to discover the process and outcome of human-nature relationships. Researchers and practitioners highlight the links between mental health and exposure to nature, establish typologies of human experiences, and add to the new nature language. The field calls for inquiry (research) and utilization (application). City planners have a unique capacity to push this field further through the application of principles learned in ecopsychology. Children that spend time outside focus better (Louv), young women that can see trees from their bedroom windows exhibit higher levels of self-confidence (Kuo), post-operative rehabilitation improves markedly when patients have exposure to natural views (Ulrich), and nature can reduce violence in prisons (Moore). If planning is really about cocreating healthy places for humanity, we should have a keen understanding of how we relate to places and the way our surroundings influence our mental, physical, and spiritual conditions. Conceivably, this understanding will enable us to better plan and re-plan our communities.

Building cities that foster healthy, loving relationships between people and their surroundings creates a positive feedback loop: as resident well-being improves, so too does the individual and collective desire to actively contribute to a community’s development. When we come to love a place we strengthen our commitment to its future. Ultimately, we learn to recognize the mutuality between people and places — we depend on our surroundings and our surroundings depend on us.

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City and Metropolitan Planning: Patricia Hasbach (keynote speaker), students from the U, Stephen Goldsmith, and Sumner and Dr. Paula Swaner (funders of EPC and conference organizers)

Zacharia Levine is a graduate student in the Department of City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah. He looks at planning through an ecological lens and works as the Research and Development Coordinator for the newly established Ecological Planning Center (EPC). You may contact him at z.levine@utah.edu.

3 responses to “Ecopsychology and the Built Environment

  1. In an urban setting, or on a commuter train or bus, reminders of the free and open natural world become precious sources of psychological refreshment and renewal. I come to know where I will pass an evocative tree or flower, or, better, the musical curves of a wooded hill, or a street where the trees form a tunnel.

    I read once that Muscovites do this even more intensely. The greater scarcity of nature in Moscow makes them even thirstier for every refreshing glimpse of natural beauty.

  2. Thank you for the insightful comment – I think this is true for a lot of people, whether they realize it or not. We flock to city parks to feel at peace, and maybe forget where we are for a little while.

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