A burgeoning literature over the last few decades suggests that access to green space and natural environments may offer health benefits that not only contribute to reductions in ill health as measured by publicly available health data but, perhaps just as importantly, offer opportunities for people to manage their own health and cope with illness. This view of the landscape as therapeutic or palliative is one that has resonated historically and has been discussed both in relation to particular landscapes chosen or designed for their therapeutic qualities and in relation to more everyday landscapes within and around the urban environment. (…)
In this context, it is interesting to note how consistently, in the westernised world at least, we associate the landscape with health benefit and positive feelings, perhaps reflecting our urban lifestyles and a romanticised attitude to a natural environment that is often hard to access in practice. But this was certainly not always true historically, and there are many parts of the world where the natural environment still offers many hazards, from floods and landslides to wild animals and disease vectors, some of which may return to challenge the developed world more forcefully under climate change. This is no doubt one of the foundations for the widespread evocation of an idealised landscape across many different cultures and geographical zones, from the Buddhist gardens of Amida to the Persian paradise tradition that has influenced so much of our Eurasian garden culture. Throughout history, it seems that people (perhaps only a privileged few) have evoked gardens that were not merely practical places for growing things but gardens of sensory delight and an idealised version of ‘nature’, that excluded the unpleasant, the dangerous and the unwelcome.
What does this mean for the kinds of landscapes we want and need in our urbanised world today, to enhance the health of all people, regardless of ability, income or ethnicity? Well-managed gardens have been attractive as a private retreat from time immemorial and still seem to offer something important, recognised by widely varying groups of people. The restrictions that can be placed on access to private gardens allow some aspects of the paradise garden to endure: the idea that it is a safe and secure place, where the natural world is carefully managed but nonetheless experientially rich. This is perhaps especially important as a resource for the very young and the very old, and for people with some kinds of impairment or illness and those who care for them.
By contrast, public parks (like urban squares) have been popular since the nineteenth century as a place to meet (or at least observe) diversity and difference, to encounter groups and individuals who may be like us or very different from us. They are therefore important both as a place for offering some public version of the paradise garden, a comparatively safe haven in a managed, natural world, but also a place that offers some of the positive qualities of the city. They allow us to enjoy the pleasures of meeting with family or friends in attractive surroundings, regardless of the constraints of the buildings in which we live. They allow us a place and a context where we can get away from people, too, if we want to be alone and with space around us. And, they also allow us to watch from a distance those whom we don’t know or have connections with, to get a sense of the ‘other’ in society, without having to engage at a personal level. On top of this, they offer a natural (if managed) environment for multi-sensorial experience. In human evolutionary terms, they are a very recent phenomenon, and perhaps we are still coming to terms with what they mean for the anthropogenic age, but they may be important as the only green or natural spaces with which many people have contact, and therefore play a prime role in our future development, both individually and as a species.
This brings me to ‘wild’ or semi-natural areas, sometimes still contained within urban areas but more often on the fringes or in the more remote countryside. These have performed different roles in recent history, from liminal areas of informal activity to places for nature study or where people can encounter physical (and psychological) challenge of a different sort from most that the city can offer. Such places can offer a sense of being immersed in the wider order of natural things, a very powerful experience for some. Such an experience can engender a spiritual response or a feeling of the transcendent—a feeling rarely experienced by many in an increasingly secular society—that seems to be appreciated all the more for its sense that we are just a small part of something much bigger and beyond our imagination or full comprehension.