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Wildness in Urban Parks Important for Human Well-Being

A new study finds that not all forms of nature are equally beneficial when it comes to human well-being.

The findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Cities, show that experiencing “wildness” in nature — as opposed to a well-manicured park, for example — is particularly important for our physical and mental health.

Previous studies have demonstrated the health and wellness benefits of nature for humans, but the new study is the first 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 University of Washington (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.”

For the study, the researchers 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 Dr. 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 team surveyed several hundred park visitors, 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.”

Among the 320 submissions, a pattern of categories the researchers call a “nature language” began to emerge.

After coding all of the submissions, half a dozen of 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.

In addition, the team 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.

Identifying each meaningful experience in nature 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 engage in a more urban 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.”

Source: University of Washington

Wildness in Urban Parks Important for Human Well-Being

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Wildness in Urban Parks Important for Human Well-Being. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 27 Feb 2020 (Originally: 27 Feb 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 27 Feb 2020
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