Wildness in urban parks important for human well-being

Summary: Experiencing wilderness and natural wildlife in urban parks improves both physical and mental wellbeing.

Source: University of Washington

As metropolises balloon with growth and sprawl widens the footprint of cities around the world, access to nature for people living in urban areas is becoming harder to find.

If you’re lucky, a pocket park might be installed next to a new condominium complex on your block, or perhaps a green roof tops the building where you work downtown. But it’s unusual to find places in a city that are relatively wild — even though our evolutionary history suggests we need interactions with wild nature to thrive.

A new study led by the University of Washington has found that not all forms of nature are created equal when considering benefits to people’s well-being. Experiencing wildness, specifically, is particularly important for physical and mental health, according to the study published Jan. 29 in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Cities.

Past research has found health and wellness benefits of nature for humans, but this is the first study to show that wildness in urban areas is profoundly important for human well-being.

“It was clear from our results that different kinds of nature can have different effects on people,” said lead author Elizabeth Lev, a graduate student in the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. “The wilder areas in an urban park seem to be affording more benefits to people — and their most meaningful interactions depended on those relatively wild features.”

While these findings likely hold true in most major cities, the research team focused on Discovery Park in Seattle, the city’s most expansive urban park, which encompasses about 500 acres. The park, less than a 20-minute drive from the downtown core, has faced development pressures common for parks in cities with burgeoning populations.

The park’s advisory board asked the UW researchers to look at what elements were most important to people who visit, with the goal of gaining usable information for decision-makers.

“We looked at Discovery Park, but this is about the entire planet,” said senior author Peter Kahn, a UW professor of environmental and forest sciences and psychology. “Everywhere, development is chipping away at wild areas. Humanity has caused so much destruction and there’s no stopping it — unless we stop. We’re trying to show that if you’re going to develop an area, you at least need to understand the human costs.”

The research team surveyed several hundred park-goers, asking them to submit a written summary online of a meaningful interaction they had with nature in Discovery Park. The researchers then pored over these submissions, coding experiences into different categories. For example, one participant’s experience of “We sat and listened to the waves at the beach for a while” was assigned the categories “sitting at beach” and “listening to waves.”

Across the 320 participant submissions, a pattern of categories the researchers call a “nature language” began to emerge. After coding all of the submissions, half a dozen categories — what the researchers call “interaction patterns” — were noted most often as important to visitors. These include encountering wildlife, walking along the edge of water, gazing out at a view and following an established trail.

Additionally, the researchers looked at whether the park’s relative wildness was important in each visitor’s most meaningful experiences in the park. They defined “relatively wild” as including Discovery Park’s varied and relatively unmanaged land, its high levels of biodiversity, its “big nature” like old growth trees, large open spaces, expansive vistas, and people’s experience of the park’s solitude and removal from civilization.

These wild features were important to people’s experiences, in nearly every case. For example, “spotting bald eagle” references a relatively wild bird, and “watching birds perched on an old growth tree,” denotes a wild habitat where that tree can thrive.

This is an american robin
An American robin seen in Discovery Park, Seattle, Washington. The image is credited to Elizabeth Lev/University of Washington.

Naming each nature experience creates a usable language, which is important for people to be able to recognize and take part in the activities that are most fulfilling and meaningful to them. For example, the experience of walking along the edge of water might be fulfilling for a young professional on a weekend hike in the park. Back downtown during a workday, they can enjoy a more domestic form of this interaction by walking along a fountain or water feature on their lunch break.

“We’re losing the language of interaction with nature and as we do, we also lose the cultural practice of these deep forms of interaction with nature, the wellsprings of human existence,” Kahn said. “We’re trying to generate a nature language that helps bring these human-nature interactions back into our daily lives. And for that to happen, we also need to protect nature so that we can interact with it.”

The researchers hope this study — and future ones conducted in other cities — can be used as part of the decision-making process for development proposals in parks and urban natural areas. They compiled their analysis methods into a handbook that can be used to undertake similar studies in other cities around the world.

Co-authors are Hanzi Chen of Tongji University in China who completed the research as a visiting scholar at the UW and Garrett Esperum, a Seattle resident and member of the Discovery Park Advisory Council.

Funding: This research was funded by the University of Washington.

About this neuroscience research article

University of Washington
Media Contacts:
Michelle Ma – University of Washington
Image Source:
The image is credited to Elizabeth Lev/University of Washington.

Original Research: Open access
“Relatively Wild Urban Parks Can Promote Human Resilience and Flourishing: A Case Study of Discovery Park, Seattle, Washington”. Elizabeth Lev et al.
Frontiers in Sustainable Cities doi:10.3389/frsc.2020.00002.


Relatively Wild Urban Parks Can Promote Human Resilience and Flourishing: A Case Study of Discovery Park, Seattle, Washington

Human interaction with nature is vital for physical health and mental well-being, and positions a community to be resilient to urban stressors. Yet urban development continues to put pressures on natural areas within urban boundaries. As a case in point, Seattle’s largest park, Discovery Park, of over 500 acres, is often under threat of some form of development. The central question of this study was whether the benefits to visitors of Discovery Park depend, in no small measure, on the park’s very size and relative wild landscape. Toward addressing this question, 320 participants provided written narratives (through our web portal) about the meaningful ways in which they interacted with nature at Discovery Park. Each individual narrative was then analyzed and coded using an Interaction Pattern (IP) approach, which provides characterizations of human-nature interaction that have ontogenetic and phylogenetic significance. Results revealed 520 Interaction Patterns (IPs). The most frequently occurring IPs clustered under the keystone IPs of Encountering Wildlife (27%), Following Trails (14%), Walking to Destination Spots in Nature (8%), Gazing out at the Puget Sound or Mountains (6%), Walking Along Edges of Beach or Bluffs (5%), and Walking with Dogs (4%). Results also revealed that visitors’ meaningful interactions with nature in Discovery Park depended on the park’s relative wildness. For example, (a) 77% of participants’ IPs depended on Discovery Park’s relative wildness; (b) of the participants who specified an especially meaningful experience with nature, 95% of them had an interaction that depended on Discovery Park’s relative wildness; and (c) of the participants whose IPs were linked to other aspects of the nature in the park or to their own positive mental states, 95 and 96%, respectively, had an interaction that depended on Discovery Park’s relative wildness. Discussion focuses on how human interaction with large and relatively wild urban parks helps reverse the trend of environmental generational amnesia, and a domination worldview, and thus should be prioritized in urban planning.

Feel Free To Share This Nature and Psychology News.
Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.