More Than Just a Pretty Space

By: Jaya Larsen

As she coasts her bike off of the Lakeshore Path and towards her apartment, University of Wisconsin-Madison junior Lauren Jorgensen feels more relaxed than when she left downtown 15 minutes earlier. While the agronomy and community/ environmental sociology major is aware of the endorphin increase created by exercise, she is also aware of another important factor in her mood lift—the mental health boosting effects of green space immersion.

Photo by Jaya Larsen

There are many famous green spaces at UW, including the Arboretum, Bascom Hill and the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. However, there are also many lesser-known “hidden gems” scattered across the campus, including Allen Centennial Garden, the Institutes for Discovery’s Mesozoic Garden and the Botanical Garden.

The prevalence of these green spaces is no accident of history. UW-Madison is renowned for environmental and city planning pioneers such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson, as noted by the Gaylord Nelson Institute. The public urban green spaces these visionaries inspired have become hallmarks of both the university and Madison, helping the community to function more efficiently and sustainably and its residents to be more mentally healthy.

While Madison’s connection to environmental leadership goes back to Sierra Club founder John Muir – who the UW Alumni Association notes attended the university in the 1860s – the development of its green spaces really began with the civic planning by American landscape architect and city planner, John Nolen in the early 1900s. According to historian Richard Amero, Nolen’s vision for the city went well beyond just laying out city parks. He recommended that the university increase the number of trees and land for public green spaces, as well as add more than 1,000 acres of land to create multiple gardens and an arboretum.

Nolen sensed that green spaces provide cities and campuses with a host of significant and measurable benefits, including health enhancements. The Wisconsin Historical Society’s website quoted Nolen as saying “Simple recreation in the open air amid beautiful surroundings contributes to physical and moral health, to a saner and happier life.”

This is an idea that UW Director of Campus Planning and Landscape Architecture Gary Brown wholeheartedly supports. “Green spaces, plants and trees are critical to controlling water run-off and flooding, and they help mitigate the heating effects of concrete.” Brown also pointed out that green spaces improve air quality by adding carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. “When we design new buildings, we spend a lot of time thinking about the outdoor spaces around them.”

Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison

Although the urban planning benefits of green spaces are highly quantifiable, Brown feels they are just the tip of the iceberg. “Landscaping and green spaces help students study better, take tests better and feel more comfortable,” he said. “Studies have even shown that hospitalized people recuperate better if they can see trees, leaves and grass out their window. The effects are dramatic.”

These are not just Brown’s opinions; many have been documented by organizations like the American Psychiatric Association, whose research shows that green space immersion not only helps calm people, but also enhances learning, attentiveness and recovery from mental fatigue. Additionally, the World Health Organization states that physical activity and “access to green spaces can reduce health inequalities, improve well-being, and aid in [the] treatment of mental illness.”

Local organizations reflect this thinking as well. The Allen Centennial Garden Center is committed to reconnecting the local community with nature, according to the Director of Events and Marketing Kaitlin McIntosh. “Green spaces provide not only a mental break, but a healing opportunity as well,” said Allen Centennial Director of Programs and Community Engagement Elin Meliska.

This commitment can be found across the university. In fact, there is a campus-wide initiative called UWell aimed at improving the long-term wellness of the university and its surrounding community. As detailed on their website, there are seven facets to the UWell program, including environmental wellness, which promotes the benefits of green spaces, noting that people are the most content and relaxed when they are outdoors.

Though some might believe that this is merely a personal preference for an outdoor lifestyle, there is science behind UWell’s statement. Professional organizations such as The American Society of Landscape Architects recognize the importance of nature to one’s mental health. The society’s website features numerous studies that explore how green space access enhances both physical and mental health and “can help counter the stressors of urban life.”

Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison

Psychological studies support these research findings as well. Psychology Today notes that actively engaging in these green spaces—whether taking a short walk or spending the day at a park –literally releases “happy hormones” (such as serotonin and dopamine) in its participants.

Outdoor green spaces provide more than a “happy hormone” boost, however. They also offer educational opportunities, essentially functioning as outdoor laboratories for students like Lauren Jorgensen. As an ambassador for the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and a program assistant for the Greenhouse Learning Community in Leopold Hall, Jorgensen has spent ample amounts of time in these areas. “Green spaces are important for students studying ecologically-based subjects to perform research and engage in out-of-the-classroom activities,” said Jorgensen. “For example, in my soil science class, I got to practice taking soil cores in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve instead of just watching how to do it on video.”

Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison

Jorgensen also recognizes the mental health benefits of green spaces. “Not only do they provide a safe, organic space for physical activity, but integrated campus green space has also been scientifically proven to de-stress students,” Jorgensen said. “From my own experience, I know I definitely feel calmer when I’m on Lakeshore Path than on University [Avenue] with all the buildings and people.”


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