Picture this: the whisper of leaves rustling gently in trees overhead, the quiet crackling of footsteps over thick grass and twigs, and the fresh smell of soil, wild grasses, and flowers.
You notice a butterfly flutter around colorful petals; a spider weaving its magnificently intricate web, glistening in the sunlight like a living sculpture. Your heart rate slows. Breathing is even and deep. Time lingers, and all the busyness of the outside, day-to-day life recedes. You feel at peace, and the world shrinks to just this moment, to what is in front of you.
As a species, though we may be programmed to live in communal societies with the convenience of urban development — nature is vital to our lives. We have an intrinsic emotional need to connect with our natural world. It brings a high value into our lives, from physical benefits to psychological ones, and communities that retain plenty of nature in them bring those benefits directly home. Neighborhoods without access to nature are unable to maximize these advantages for their residents.
“The Walsh community not only understands this, but has made it one of their top priorities — to celebrate the land, and preserve nature for current and future generations to appreciate.”
Today’s world, which is always “on” with to-do lists, schedules, and its inexhaustible, accessible information stream, takes its toll. A rise in ADHD among both children and adults in this technology age is not surprising. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that diagnoses of ADHD has grown about three percent a year, for more than a decade. In fact, the disconnect we’ve had from the natural world in our modern one has led to a new term, “nature deficit disorder.” Coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, the disorder is the result of the staggering divide between children and the outdoors today, and the lack of nature in today’s wired generation.
Louv’s book draws from a new and growing body of research indicating that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development, and for the physical and emotional health of both children and adults. The green, quiet spaces of nature — absent of technology, screens and traffic — reduces stress, allowing our mind to rest its attention. This resting of our seemingly always-on mind provides benefits similar to that of meditation.
Evidence suggests that access to nature and green space provides children with a myriad of cognitive, emotional, and physical benefits, including increased concentration, improved academic performance, reduced stress and aggression, and a lower risk of obesity — and that we can suffer long-term consequences when we have limited experiences in the natural world.
When developed communities consciously incorporate green space into them, the human benefit can be great. These spaces serve as oases in urban areas, says Bianca Bidiuc, the Grow Local School Garden Manager at the Sustainable Food Center in Austin. “They provide rest and recreation,” Bidiuc says.
“Gardens and green settings have a meaningful impact. The presence of green space is linked to benefits such as recovery from mental fatigue, stress reduction, neighborhood social cohesion, reductions in crime, violence, and aggression, reduced morbidity in multiple disease categories, and better self-reported health.”
Even city dwellers need intrinsic access to nature. It should be aforethought, woven into the fabric of everyday living as one steps out their front door — sidewalks shaded with trees, parks just a stroll away. Our betterment from nature is amplified when it’s inherent and becomes the standard or new normal, as opposed to temporary excursions only enjoyed on special occasions. In those cases, the advantages of stress reduction and psychological calm are at times just as temporary as the excursion itself.
There are economic benefits, as well. Garretson’s firm found that up to a 20 percent increase in property values can be realized when a property is adjacent to or nearby parks or preserves. The design and use of such green space are important factors; for example, passive uses such as community greens yield higher property values than active uses, such as a baseball field. “So, why don’t we build more agrarian communities?” Garretson asks. “Because it doesn’t fit the model that most larger, national developers follow.”
The Walsh neighborhood will change that. A third of its land has already been set aside as a nature preserve with the help of BRIT, the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. In addition, the Walsh family planned ahead by planting a 75-acre tree farm 10 years ago, with the intention of providing the community with beautiful, mature trees.
“Greenspace should not just be an afterthought,” says Sean Garretson of Pegasus Planning and Development, an economic development consulting firm. “In addition to economic benefits, green space offers social benefits such as opportunities for recreation; environmental stewardship; and historic preservation.”
Parks and preserves within communities encourage social interaction, ecosystem awareness, and provide more opportunities for residents to get to know one another — especially if things like neighborhood gardens are part of the mix. Bidiuc says that gardens are a type of green space where these overall advantages of nature multiply.If a simple walk amongst wilder natural forms reaped so much reward — a healthier mind and body and good financial sense — communities and neighborhoods would do well to preserve those rustling leaves, not just for the good of the individual, but for the good of us all.