Most of the world’s population lives in cities, environments for which human beings are not naturally prepared. It is true that we have lived there for centuries, but the time that our species has spent living in nature is much longer. Our nature is animal, and as animals we want to continue living in nature.
The relationship between stress and urban planning was little studied until an architect named Roger Ulrich questioned the effect of natural elements on health.
Ulrich’s theory of stress recovery it is a perspective that teaches us the importance of including green elements in urban spaces and also how introducing them in recovery contexts such as hospitals or prisons can contribute to the mental health of residents. Let’s see in more detail what it is.
The impact of population density on stress
Currently, more than 50% of the world’s population lives in cities, and by 2050 that percentage is expected to reach 70%.. Numerous studies have shown that urban living is associated with an increased risk of mental disorders compared to rural areas, with around 40% more chance of suffering from depression, twice the risk of schizophrenia, increased risk of anxiety , stress and isolation disorders.
The reason is that in big cities like New York, Tokyo or London, it is rare to be in a state of physical and psychological rest. On the contrary, what is normal in cities is to be immersed in environments full of stimuli in the form of information and signals: noise, crowds, traffic, smells, lights… All this, combined with pollution , travel and the perception of insecurity are stressors that cause chronic stressful situations, with a considerable effect on our health and well-being.
The theory of stress reduction is a perspective raised by the professor of landscape architecture and town planning Roger Ulrich in 1983. It may seem curious that one of the most interesting theories about stress, a psychological phenomenon, was posed by an architect, but having understood how cities and how they are organized affect our mood, it makes sense.
Roger Ulrich raised his theory by focusing on a subject that had not been studied in depth until now: the relationship between physical space and health. After conducting several studies, Ulrich came up with this theory, which states that stress is closely related to physical spaces. He based this theory on the neurobiological findings of his time, which were known about evolution and assumptions about how prehistoric humans lived.
What is Ulrich’s stress recovery theory?
In his theory, Roger Ulrich recalls that, throughout the history of the human species and through natural selection, our species evolved to manifest physiological and psychological responses to certain environmental stimuli. These responses are involuntary and automatic, and were used previously to adapt to the environment. If the stimulus picked up was perceived as threatening, the physiological responses of our body that were produced aimed to achieve two responses: fight or flight.
Several physiological responses are given when we are confronted with a stimulus perceived as threatening: it increases the heart rate, accelerates breathing, inhibits digestion and the liver releases glucose, among others. All these actions aim to that our muscles have enough energy to be able to carry out fighting or running behavior, and to be able to best manage the perceived threat. These are consolidated physiological responses, automatically activated to make the most of time and not waste a second in a survival situation.
What we just saw is the core of stress and before, when humans were a wild animal, they served it. These responses were triggered by specific threats from the environment, which truly endangered the life of the individual. However, after thousands and thousands of years of lifestyle changes, what we perceive as a threat today really shouldn’t be.
There are certain stimuli that objectively shouldn’t stress us out, as long as they’re not threatening, but that’s how we perceive them and cause us all the physiological discomfort associated with the stress we talked about earlier. In fact, stress is quite common in large cities, where it is difficult for us to cope with the same threatening stimuli that our prehistoric ancestors had to do in their lives. In the long run, it can be harmful to your health.
Natural environments help reduce stress, as shown by Ulrich’s Stress Recovery Theory. Nature helps us to feel positive emotions, to better manage our emotional tensions, and even to improve some aspects of our cognitive and physical well-being. Observing environments with natural elements such as shrubs, grass, flowers, fountains, waterfalls, and rivers helps you experience positive emotions and feelings of interest, pleasure, and calm.
Its relation to the theory of evolution
While we covered this in the previous section, let’s take a look at the past to better understand Ulrich’s theory of stress recovery. Prehistoric humans were threatened by dangerous animals with much more force and skill. Fortunately, primitive humans had sufficient intelligence to successfully evade ferocious beasts. But this tool, although powerful, had to be in the best conditions to give birth to ingenious ideas. If she was disturbed, she had to calm down asap.
Imagine for a second that you were transposed into the karmic world of Earl. The human sees a tree and decides to climb it, hiding in the canopy. This tree was not only a refuge, it also allowed humans to glimpse the environment, to check if the animal was gone, and if not, it at least had a safe place to calm down and think about what. it had to be done about it. to escape the situation more effectively.
Although many years have passed, modern humans are still programmed to confront and flee from large animals. Our appearance will have changed, wear more clothes and live in buildings, but not our interiors. Humans continue to have an autonomic nervous system. This system has the sympathetic nervous system which is activated to alert us and trigger the stress response; and with the parasympathetic, who is responsible for working to bring the body and brain back to the state of basal, calm activation.
Through his research, Ulrich discovered that There are several stimuli that impact the activation of this parasympathetic system, including natural stimuli such as vegetation and water.. It is these stimuli that our most primitive ancestors surely saw when they fled their predators by climbing a tree or crossing a river that the dangerous animal was unable to cross.
A key aspect of his research that would help develop the theory of stress recovery is that Roger Ulrich discovered that enclosed, dead-end, or difficult-to-locate spaces are potentially stressful. One explanation for this would be that they create the feeling that it is not easy to escape, and far from being seen as a refuge, they are seen as a prison, generating the feeling of being locked away. In these cases, the system that is being stimulated is sympathetic, alert and threatening, increasing nervousness rather than reducing it.
We can draw the conclusion that open spaces are the most suitable in case of stress, and it is the opposite of the feeling of confinement that they will offer us. The first humans found their ideal habitat in the African savannahs, and these places offered them the best chances of survival because they offered them three aspects fundamentals of survival: vegetation, water and the horizon. It would be the perfect setting for human life.
And that doesn’t seem to have changed for centuries. Human beings today feel more comfortable and secure when they are in an open space, have water nearby, and see vegetation. Despite our increasingly complex social structures, installed in large cities, humans continue to feel part of nature and depend on it, it is these types of natural spaces that send us back to these basic evolutionary instincts that do not exist. ‘have not disappeared.
What Ulrich’s stress recovery theory points out is that when you’re feeling stressed, it’s ideal to be in an environment that is closest to where our ancestors lived, such as the savannah with lots of water. vegetation and water. Being in such a space, our body will begin to feel less stress, activating the parasympathetic system and reducing the activity of the sympathetic, bringing us back to calm and serenity. And with this calm and serenity we will be able to think more clearly.
Empirical confirmation of this theory
While Roger Ulrich’s stress recovery theory is relatively recent, the suspicion that what is natural has a restorative and therapeutic effect by relieving emotional tension is quite old. In fact, in ancient Rome, people already knew that being in contact with nature could be beneficial in dealing with the nuisance caused by noise and the overcrowding of urban crowds.
Ulrich’s theory has been supported by numerous empirical studies conducted in all kinds of situations: hospitals, prisons, residential communities, offices and even schools. Most have been shown to be beneficial when exposed to nature, whether for short periods of time or as isolated natural features such as a garden plant or fountain.
Exposure to natural elements is linked to a drop in blood pressure, reduced cortisol levels, less sweating, less muscle tension … all combine signs that there are changes in the parasympathetic nervous system, activating more adaptively. Positive psychological effects such as improved mood, lower anxiety levels, and more feelings of comfort and relaxation have also been identified.
What is extracted from all of this is that If you want to be in better health and live better, it is essential to introduce natural elements into the home, office, school or other significant environment. In our lifes. While the ideal would be to live in the middle of nature, the truth is that modern humans do not have this option easily, but they can take it to big cities. It is for this reason that in recent years, cities have allowed more green spaces, by developing horizontal gardens or opening new parks. The more nature there is, the less stress there is.
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