Decline in Contact with Nature in Modern Urban Society

Despite the evidence presented of the benefits of contact with nature on human health, productivity, and maturation, various modern trends suggest a significant decline in the 'direct' experience of the natural environment, especially among urban youth. It is important to note, however, people experience nature in direct, indirect, and vicarious or symbolic ways. Direct experience involves relatively unstructured contact with largely self-sustaining natural features and processes. Indirect experience involves highly structured and organized contact with natural features requiring extensive human input and management (e.g., zoological parks, gardens). Vicarious or symbolic experience involves no actual contact with real or living nature, but rather with the image or representational expression of nature through, for example, the media of books, film, and computers. The apparent decline in human contact with natural systems and processes is principally a decline in direct and spontaneous contact. By contrast, the indirect and vicarious experience of nature appears to have increased in modern times.

As intimated earlier, functional and adaptive behavior is highly reliant, however, on direct environmental experience, especially during childhood. A decline in direct contact with nature, especially among modern youth, has led some to refer to the related phenomena of'nature-deficit disorder' and an 'extinction of experience' to describe this condition. Factors associated with a significant decline in adult and children's direct experiences of nature include major biodiversity loss, degradation of natural systems, declining open space, and chemical pollution and contamination. Most of these trends have been linked to rapid urban growth and sprawl, at least as urban development has occurred until now. It is sobering to recognize that nearly three-quarters of the industrially developed world now resides in an urban area, and the majority of the world's population was recently identified as living in or near a city for the first time in human history.

Unfortunately, the prevailing paradigm of design and development of the modern urban environment has relied on massive consumption of energy and natural resources, enormous generation of wastes and pollutants, extensive degradation of natural habitats and loss of biological diversity, and increasing separation if not alienation of people from contact with natural systems and processes. This urban development paradigm is viewed as a design flaw rather than an inevitable and intrinsic failure of modern life. Fundamentally altering this design paradigm will necessitate a radically different development strategy, one sometimes referred to as sustainable but which has been called here 'restorative environmental design'.

Sustainable design to date has largely focused on minimizing and avoiding adverse impacts of the human built environment on natural systems and human health. Important elements of this 'low environmental impact' approach have included: energy and resource efficiency, waste minimization, avoidance of toxic products and materials, and protecting and restoring natural systems. This approach is vital and necessary but not sufficient for mending the current 'nature deficit'. In addition, we also require design strategies that foster beneficial contact between people and nature in places of ecological and cultural familiarity and significance. This latter approach can be called 'positive environmental impact' or, for reasons apparent by now, 'biophilic design'. Some specific elements of biophilic design in the built environment include: environmental features (e.g., natural materials, natural ventilation); natural shapes and forms (e.g., botanical and animal motifs); natural patterns and processes (sensory variability, aging, and change); light and space (natural light, spaciousness); place-based relationships (historic and ecologic connection to locality); and evolved humans relations to nature (e.g., prospect and refuge, organized complexity). Restorative environmental design is the integrated and complementary combination ofboth low environmental and biophilic design approaches, a necessary basis for a true and lasting sustainability. Hopefully, this new design paradigm will render more compatible if not harmonious the relationship between the natural and human built environments in even our modern cities, resulting in the protection and restoration of necessary ecosystem services, as well as enhancing people's biophilic needs for positive contact with nature.

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