Friday, November 23, 2007

Potent Spirit

The Brisbane River has a potent spirit that winds from wild places to tamed urban spaces spreading its story through flow and tide, fish and frog, bird and snake, wind and rain. Listening to the river, being enticed by its spirit and attuned to its changing moods and colours, promotes a heightened sense of wellbeing and delight.

Studies into the effects of engagement with natural places, particularly beautiful and aesthetic places like the river, herald positive impacts in human health and wellbeing and quality of life. This has both short and long term physical, emotional and psychological benefits such as a reduction in stress and mental fatigue (Maller et al, 2005), an increase in relaxation and restoration (Hartig et al, 2003), an opportunity for exercise and weight reduction (Pretty et al, 2005), and a lessening of stressors related to poverty and housing density in inner-city environments (Kuo, 2001).

But green spaces are fast disappearing in Brisbane and Australian cities generally. Right across the country there has been a significant decline in green spaces (forests, bushland, riverbanks, parkland, urban trees and household gardens) and a consequent decrease in residents’ everyday nature connections, plus the ecological benefits that green spaces offer - shade, quiet places, tree houses for possums, birds and bats and fresh air, as well as enhanced psycho-spiritual effects spurting from intimacy with the natural environnment.

Despite growing research into beneficial physical and psychological health outcomes of nature encounters, few studies have been undertaken into the spiritual effects of either natural urban or river environments. For example, Dutcher et al (2007:409) suggest from their study on the relationship between environmental values and nature connectivity that ‘connectivity may be an essentially spiritual phenomenon’, yet most studies into the links between spirituality and nature have focused on wilderness rather than urban environments as a source of personal transformation, insight and experiences of the mystical and numinous (Heintzman, 2003; Stringer and McAvoy, 1992).

In another study of wilderness immersion, Kellert (1998) found that spending time in wild places gives rise to an enhanced physical, emotional, intellectual and moral-spiritual outlook, while Schroeder (1996) reported that encounters with wild river systems produced feelings of awe and wonder, an appreciation of the beauty of nature, an experience of serenity, and a deepening concern about encroaching development and its impact on the river and its surrounds. Thus, according to Schroeder's research, the sense of the spiritual and the sacred is bound up in nature connecting.

This study is one of the few that focuses on rivers. One UK study on public attitudes to local rivers showed that restored rivers were well used and highly valued by the local public (Tunstall et al, 2000). Similarly, in the US in Providence, Rhode Island, river reclamation and restoration projects have led to a revitalization of the city’s business district, heightened neighbourhood links through infrastructure and scenic walkways, created public access-inspired art programs and initiated a Waterfire Festival similar to Brisbane’s River Festival (McWilliams, 2003).

But there is no indication about whether these changes in natural and social capital have stimulated environmentally responsible behaviours although they have generated positive changes in community wellbeing, increased opportunities for exercise and improved physical fitness, and the outflowing of reciprocal and mindful relationship between river restoration and restoration of self and community.

Dutcher, D.D., J.C. Finley, A.E. Luloff, and J.B. Johnson, 2007, ‘Connectivity with Nature as a Measure of Environmental Values,’ Environment and Behavior, 39, 474-493.
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Hartig T., G.W. Evans, L.D. Jamner, D.S. Davis, and T. Gärling, 2003, ‘Tracking Restoration in Natural and Urban Field Settings,’ Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23, 109-123.
Heintzman P., 2003, ‘The Wilderness Experience and Spirituality: What Recent Research Tells Us,’ The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 74.
Kals E., D. Schumacher and L. Montada, 1999, ‘Emotional Affinity toward Nature as a Motivational Basis to Protect Nature,’ Environment and Behavior, 31, 2, 178-202.
Kellert S.R, 1998, A National Study of Outdoor Wilderness Experience, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, Sept. 1998.
Kuo F.E., 2001, ‘Coping with Poverty: Impacts of Environment and Attention in the Inner City,’ Environment and Behavior, 33, 1, 5-34.
McWilliams B., 2003, ‘Providence Reclaims Rivers,’ Architecture Week, July 16,
Maller C., M. Townsend, A. Pryor, P. Brown, and L. St Leger, 2005, ‘Healthy Nature Healthy People: ‘Contact with Nature’ as an Upstream Health Promotion Intervention for Populations,’ Health Promotion International, 21, 1, 45-54.
Pretty J., M. Griffin, J. Peacock, R. Hine, M. Sellens, and N. South, 2005, A Countryside for Health and Wellbeing: The Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Green Exercise, Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University, Countryside Recreation Network.
Schroeder H.W., 1996, ‘Ecology of the Heart: Understanding How People Experience Natural Environments’, in A.W. Ewart, Ed., Natural Resources Management: The Human Dimension, Boulder, CO, Westview Press.
Stringer L.A. and L.H. McAvoy, 1992, ‘The Need for Something Different: Spirituality and Wilderness Adventure,’ Journal of Experiential Education, 15, 1, 13-20.
Tunstall, S.M., Penning-Rowsell, E.C., Tapsell, S.M. and Eden , S.E., 2000, 'River Restoration: Public attitudes and Expectations, Water & Environmental Management, 14, 5, 363-370.