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Ecotherapy in the city: How urban nature boosts wellbeing

Ecotherapy in the city: How urban nature boosts wellbeing

Psychologist Rachel Ward Lilley discusses the importance of nature in urban areas and how it supports our wellbeing.

More than half of the world’s population has gravitated to cities and, in doing so, has become disconnected from the essential elements of nature – the countryside, oceans, mountains and all the life that abounds in them. Civilisation flourishes in cities, where humans interact and exchange ideas, without which there would be no progress. Cities also provide shelter from the elements and convenience of living. Yet human development is about more than these things: nature plays a part in the human psyche that is just as important to our overall wellbeing as material comfort. This has always been so, but if it were needed, evidence is all around us now in the proof of the adverse impacts our extractive activities have – eco-destruction, species extinction, and climate change. In light of these outcomes, it is desirable to maintain traces of nature in our built environments, remind us to cherish it, and help us stay connected to its therapeutic qualities.

The good news is that there are many ways in which this connection can be maintained. During the Victorian era, people recognised that life for factory workers without clean, green spaces was a miserable experience, detrimental to their physical and mental health. Hence local authorities – and in some cases, philanthropists – established urban parks for public recreation. This was a welcome start to the dawning era of concern for public health. Though crowded slum areas remained in many cities well into the twentieth century, suburban houses for the better-off were being built on generous plots that allowed gardens to be cultivated. Latterly, although modern housing developments were allocated smaller gardens, it became common to incorporate parks, green verges and trees into the surroundings to soften the harshness of bricks and tarmac. The benefits of having a garden became apparent to all when the coronavirus lockdown obliged us to stay at home; there was a surge in demand for such properties, especially from those confined to an apartment with no outside space.

Some urban dwellers are fortunate to use allotments, though these are a scarce legacy of the past when growing your own food was more commonplace. For the most part, cities are becoming more crowded, and land is too expensive for cultivation. Many of us live in old, densely built streets, where nature has been absent since day one. However, we can do much both privately and publicly to encourage nature to establish a toehold, even in such places. Window boxes and balcony pots bring colour to our lives and joy to our hearts as we watch the growth cycle and welcome the birds and pollinators that start to appear around them.

There are ‘guerrilla gardeners’ who sow seeds in scraps of leftover land at junctions and neglected corners, and botanists who lovingly chalk up the names of plants that grow through cracks in the pavement in an attempt to encourage us not to take them for granted. Some buildings now sport vertical gardens and green roofs, bringing wildlife, colour and the benefits of natural insulation. And with the parks and verges maintained by local authorities, a new approach has been adopted, whereby the frequency of mowing is timed to allow wildflowers to bloom and set seed. All proof of what is possible and necessary when it comes to maintaining our connection with nature.

Rachel Ward Lilley is a business and educational psychologist. She has worked for many years advising SMEs and her current work relates to issues of resilience, communication, personal development, team building and motivation. Over the past 12 years Rachel has extended her work into the educational field.  Find out more here.