The Essential Nature of Nature

by Ari Grayson, PhD

by Ari Grayson, PhD

A common refrain amongst environmental psychologists is “a city without trees isn’t fit for a dog.”  We appreciate the innate needs of our animal friends yet sometimes fail to recognize even the (most) basic needs of humans.  Architects and planners are often ignorant of fundamental human needs, naïvely placing form over function without regard to what helps people thrive in the environment, whether built or natural.

Let’s begin by considering what on first glance might seem an unrelated topic: property values. It’s not news that property values are high along coastal SoCal. Is it because Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, etc. have great shopping? Perhaps, but less expensive communities have great shopping too. Is it because buyers pay more to be near the “nicer” people living on the coast? Doubtful.

People are willing to pay a premium for coastal properties primarily to have a view of, or access to, the hills and the ocean. Not surprisingly, Lagunans are very protective of their views. Views of nature add to Laguna’s lure, and one can reasonably assert, to our property values. Putting aside our visceral response, we must consider why a view of nature is so important to us.

:  The Western Tanager, shown here, has breeding grounds in Orange County.

The Western Tanager, shown here, has breeding grounds in Orange County.

Nature is more than an accouterment, or an aesthetic. Early humans were a part of nature and nature is essential to both our cognitive health and our physical health, and it enhances our quality of life. It so nurtures us, we even call her “mother nature.”

Connectedness to nature increased the likelihood of survival for early humans.  Sun and shadow provided information about the passing of time and wind carried smells across the environment, telling them about weather conditions and forewarning possible dangers.  Environmental conditions provided our ancestors with clues essential to hunting or foraging and to returning home safely.

Modern life may separate and “protect” us from nature, but our brain remains hardwired for nature and the cues it provides. Think about how anxious you feel when you’re stuck inside a windowless space all day with little information about the weather.  It’s not that you’re unsafe inside, you’re anxious because your brain still craves information that your ancestors had in abundance. When deprived of information about the environment we can become anxious.

But nature is not merely essential to physical survival it’s also restorative for our cognitive well-being. Restorative environments reduce mental fatigue and are indispensible to functioning. Restorative settings release the stress associated with the focused attention employed to work, to shop, and to function in everyday life.  Although it’s not a substitute for being in nature, recent research indicates that nature is of such importance to us that people benefit just by seeing images of nature, even if on a computer screen. Hospital patients with a window looking at nature (tend to) need fewer analgesics and have shorter hospital stays.

The characteristics that make restorative environments essential to human functioning and survival are abundant in Laguna Beach.  The most important characteristics are 1) coherence – repeated elements, textures, and features; 2) complexity – a variety of visual elements; 3) mystery – the promise of additional information as a person navigates a space; 4) legibility – the ability to move into and out of an environment safely; and 5) naturalness – “natural” as opposed to “ornamental” landscape.

People tend to prefer environments that are complex enough to engage our senses, but not so complex that they overwhelm or appear foreboding.  Mystery stimulates our curiosity and piques our interest whereas legibility provides the sense that we could see possible predators, conceal one’s self, and navigate an environment safely.  Naturalness is an innate desire for environments that “make sense” without being overtly structured by humans.  Naturalness is what makes Laguna Beach look and feel “organic” in contrast to communities such as Dana Point, which although pretty, is certainly not organic.  Drive into Laguna Beach along Coast Highway, from either the north or the south, and you’ll see what I mean.  The visual transition from our neighbors is profound.

Living in Laguna Beach means we literally pay to have nature in our life.  It’s a cost worth being borne because nature fuels life, and it’s a relationship that works both ways.  The Greenbelt, the Bluebelt, and a green, pedestrian-friendly village are essential to our community and Laguna must therefore always support and enhance our natural environment.  We owe it our to our dogs; we owe it to ourselves; we owe it to mother nature.

Ari is co-owner of G2 Consulting.  He earned a PhD from the University of Michigan, specializing in energy efficient design and minoring in environmental psychology. He studied town and city planning at The Technion in Haifa, Israel.


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