Cities and Restorative Effect of Nature

Jonah Lehrer has an interesting piece in the Boston Globe titled How the city hurts your brain…and what you can do about it.

He cites research that says "just being in an urban environment… impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control." Constant stimuli — signs, noises, sights — leave us depleted. What to do? One psychologist says that immersion in nature can have a restorative effect. Walking through a quiet forest area can replenish the focus and attention that city life drained. Even spending time in nature within an urban area — say, a city park — can achieve a similar effect.

Thanks to growing up in the West, I've been lucky to spend a significant amount of time in nature and my personal experience matches this article all the way. I love the hustle-bustle of big cities but crave regular doses of open space, forests, and fresh mountain air. When I'm there — when I'm gaping at the spectacular red canyons of Utah, or on the peak of a mountain in Colorado, or hiking around the Sequoias of California, or simply letting the desert heart swirl around me in New Mexico, heat that comes out of the ground for miles on end, those open plains — when I'm there I enjoy myself, but I really feel the benefit when I've returned to the big city, recharged.

Day-to-day in the city, I think it's important to find those getaway nooks to relax for an hour. Golden Gate Park in SF or Central Park in NY are the obvious options, and they are wonderful. But sometimes, in San Francisco, finding a cement bench facing the water on a deserted road, and letting the foggy odor envelope the scene, can be just the thing.

4 comments on “Cities and Restorative Effect of Nature
  • I think it comes back to diversifying your experience. Anywhere can become boring after a period of time. New experiences good and bad will recharge me every time.

  • Amen. Fast from being concrete jungles, cities are now turning human zoos, a large community where people are lonesome together. The stark contrast stood out; what nature gave and something that human art got built. I am sure there is hardly one in three of us that live in the cities who is not sick with unused self.

    Yet I would never shun the cities. Recognize that in the presence of eternity, even mountains are as transient as the clouds. Try giving close attention to even a blade of grass, it becomes an awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.

    Cities may be mad, but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful, but the beauty is grim. Some people I know feel a lot safe and secure in city neighborhoods than in remote villages. When they get their vehicle towed away for unauthorized parking, they rejoice that the system works!

    It’s a bit like grass is greener on the other side – when you live in country, you long for the cities and vice versa, as I had sensed during my recent vacation to the hill town of Mussorie in North India.

    Sin, perhaps is geographical 🙂

  • Ben: Fascinating post. Reading it I was reminded of a lecture by a prof in American Intellectual History at Minnesota. He made distinctions between space and place, building upon the work of anthropologists and sociologists. His insight was that one of the severe downsides to American individualism was the result of our love of space–lack of rootedness, community and tribal membership. Place, to him, stood for rootedness, land, personal history, family, etc. The orientation to nature that I share with you is all about place. It’s comforting, warm, satisfying and liberating. And it distances us from psychosis.

    Much of American lit, movies, even politics, can be viewed through the lens of space or place. Of course, the Judeo-Christian tradition of Shalom–and even salvation or metanoia–is tied to homecoming–an interesting metaphor for place.

    Oh well, just an occasional wandering ex-academic with, hopefully, food for thought.

  • Here is an interesting response from one of my favorite bloggers, Chris Bradford:


    if Berman wanted to find out what impact a crowded city street has on the “human brain” — and not just the brains of those who find crowded city streets disorienting — then he needed to test those who are familiar with that environment and who like it or are at least content to live in it. He needed to control for preferences.

    But Berman did not do that. He gathered some University of Michigan students and sent some to walk around downtown Ann Arbor and others to stroll through an arboretum. He did not pick people who necessarily lived in and liked downtown Ann Arbor. A proper test would have required sending a group of downtown residents to walk the nature trail and another group to walk their familiar streets. If people comfortable with downtown Ann Arbor experienced diminished cognitive function, then Berman might be on to something. But from this account of his research, he has not done that.

    Regardless, we know that dense, urban environments can’t be too bad for our cognitive function, as Lehrer belatedly acknowledges at the end of his article:

    “Recent research by scientists at the Santa Fe Institute used a set of complex mathematical algorithms to demonstrate that the very same urban features that trigger lapses in attention and memory — the crowded streets, the crushing density of people — also correlate with measures of innovation, as strangers interact with one another in unpredictable ways. It is the “concentration of social interactions” that is largely responsible for urban creativity, according to the scientists. The density of 18th-century London may have triggered outbreaks of disease, but it also led to intellectual breakthroughs, just as the density of Cambridge — one of the densest cities in America — contributes to its success as a creative center. One corollary of this research is that less dense urban areas, like Phoenix, may, over time, generate less innovation.”

    Personally, I agree with Alex that long-term exposure to a wide range of stimuli will ultimately result in a “better,” more agile brain than just sticking to the same old routes and places every day (whether urban, suburban, or rural).

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