Thursday, March 6, 2008

New Moon over the River

The crescent hangs in the pale evening sky. The river breathes. The last carrolling of the Magpie and the laughter of the Kookaburra fade as darkness falls. Flying Foxes perform their sunset exodus up from the river valley and out across the rooftops, flying fast in search of blossoms and fruit. At dusk, the environs of the Brisbane River are indeed alive with movement and sound as night descends.

Being part of the river and connecting with its flow and the life of creatures who dwell here has been a significant factor in getting to know place. Being immersed within its ecosystem, though, has brought mixed feelings - as this beautiful valley makes way for ever-expanding and frequently unthinking development. Sustainable growth is possible, sustainable housing is practical - but both require a determined mindset that brings nature and the needs of the ecosystem as active players into government planning and decision making.

Perhaps too, it requires an awarenss of the benefits of nature connecting or nature-based experience in enhancing (human) physiological and psychological health.

There is a growing body of evidence that being in nature, connecting with green and blue places, from hiking to gardening, from wilderness excursions to sitting in the local park, correspond to increased mental health outcomes and psychological development (Davis, 2004). Active engagement in the outdoors provides opportunities for exercise and other activities beneficial for healthy living (Burton et al, 2007). So a reduction in green space amenity can affect a community's health and wellbeing, and certainly, all around this river city, green and treed spaces are being squeezed.

The benefits of nature-based experiences are felt holistically - touching the physical, emotional and spiritual health and wellbeing of individuals. In particular they are seen to have a formative effect on childhood and adolescent development (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989; Kellert, 2007). In fact, Stephen Kellert maintains that 'children have an inherent need for nature' for development, learning and stimulation, while Richard Louv (2005), in his book 'Last Child in the Woods', has postulated that children are suffering from 'nature deficit disorder'.

Nature deficit disorder is not only an issue for children. As lifestyles change, as gardens disappear, as trees are cut, as people move into apartments or homes without surrounding green space, the city too suffers along with its citizens (including the animals, insects, frogs and birds), from nature deficit disorder.

If meaningful experiences in nature, even in inner-city spaces, can give rise to improved mental and physical health, then a reduction in green spaces, by extension, could be seen to give rise to decreased opportunities for those improvements to take place. If the society values interior experiences more than those taking place in the exterior, to what extent will this impact on the physical and mental health outcomes for the community?

This is especially relevant in childhood where increasing time spent in indoor activities (e.g. computer games) may deleteriously impact physical health (Thomas and Thompson, 2004). A lack of exercise is already an apparent factor in increasing childhood obesity.

On the spiritual level, nature experiences can trigger peak experiences (Davis, 2004), defined as 'experiences of optimal mental health... characterized... by a sense of tranquility and serenity', personal transformation and insight. Wilderness guide and transpersonal (eco)psychologist John Davis states that it is experiences in the wilderness especially that promote the feeling 'that the world is enchanted, alive, whole and meaningful'. This gives rise, he says, to the realization that nature and wilderness encounters can lead us (humans) 'to feel more enchanted, alive, whole, and meaningful'.

With this feeling in mind, the River is calling.

Burton NW, B Oldenburg, JF Sallis and G Turrell, 2007, Measuring Psychological, Social, and Environmental Influences on Leisure-Time Physical Activity among Adults,
CJC Consulting, K Willis and L Osman, 2005, Economic Benefits of Accessible Green Spaces for Physical and Mental Health: Scoping Study, CJC Consulting, Oxford, UK.
Davis J, 2004, Psychological Benefits of Nature Experiences: An Outline of Research and Theory. With Special Reference to Transpersonal Psychology.
Kaplan R and S Kaplan, 1989, The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. New York: Cambridge.
Thomas G and G Thompson, 2004, A Child's Place: Why Environment Matters to Children. London: Green Alliance/DEMOS.