"The Green Block Hypothesis": How a space "to be" rivals a space to escape
Architecture defines 3 spaces: The 1st Space (the home), The 2nd Space (work), and The 3rd Space (Leisure eg. cafes or sporting arenas). I have come across rumblings that the "4th Space" may soon become the Internet - as a place to escape the demands of the current spaces as they stand.
This troubles me, not just because "entering" the Internet has been described as "leaving a child all alone in the middle of New York City", but also because escapism can bring respite, but it is unlikely to tackle the root of the problem - and in terms of the internet can even cause more damage to our already fragile mental health.
The theme for 2021's Mental Health Awareness Week was “Nature and the Environment” as the pandemic has taught - or at least reminded - us how special and precious our green spaces are.
Humans are biophilic – we are drawn towards natural shapes and textures. Research has shown that recovery is swifter when patients have a view of landscapes; sunlight encourages vitamin D (which in turn boosts our immune system); and in Japan “Forest Bathing” (walks through forests) is medically-recommended because of the healing effect nature brings.
Certainly, over the last year, our green space has not only hosted our regular exercise, or maybe that moment to pause, but they became places to date (eg. Socially distanced walks); to learn (many parks have QR codes on the trees); and one of the few places we could see loved ones face to face (or mask to mask).
Further, many of our body’s natural “Happy hormones and receptors” are stimulated by nature – serotonin which regulates our mood, sleep and appetite can be increased by the sun; exercise can release dopamine and endorphins; and of course, if we are connecting with friends – or even stroking a pet – we enjoy a boost of oxytocin.
Yet green space has always been there! London became the world’s first “National Park City” on July 22, 2019 – with a view to getting people to enjoy the “great outdoors”; Universities have green concepts inbuilt for example the green roof adorns new blocks at The University of Essex; and Northampton Uni has its own biomass boiler; Singapore since 2018 offers a “Green Mark for Healthier workplaces” recognising that sustainable design, energy and response management, and the office environment all contribute to wellbeing and the promotion of mental health; Hotels are already embedding biophilia into their designs including hemp & green tea pillows in New York!
So first of all, here are 8 tips for making the most of what we already have!
1. Stop, savour and enjoy. Being outdoors triggers a release of endorphins, but if you are having a giggle with friends, you'll elicit the bonding hormone (Oxytocin) too. Or, (after asking the owner), stroke a pup!! It's not only human hugs and affection that generates oxytocin, but our pets can stimulate it's production in us...and even benefit themselves!!
2. Meditation/Deep breathing: This produces GABA (an inhibitory molecule which generates a sense of calm), and if you combine that with nature and sunlight, you'll get the extra boost of serotonin as well!
3. Take a photo and brighten your laptop, phone or room with a sunny screensaver
Pictures of a beautiful place or sunny climate, offer us a quick reminder of happy times and memories. This can generate a sense of warmth and relaxation even with wind beating at the door. Humans are often quickly moved by imagery, and having photos of places you love (with the ensuing memories of people we love attached), can reinforce those feelings of affection as well.
4. Bring the outdoors in: Keep evergreens, fresh fruit, flowers or greenery
Pine smells great, and researchers at Kyoto university in Japan found that healthy volunteers who strolled through a pine forest for 15 minutes a day reported more positive ratings on a mood scale compared with those who did not. Keeping fresh flowers, plants, and colourful fruits around will also brighten your environment – and the latter will keep your holiday snacking healthy.
5. Try something new
The brain responds well to novelty. On a bright day, go for a walk taking a new path. Enjoy the new experiences such as the sensation of the sun, the breeze, the new smells or sounds, and see who you meet on your adventure. Whilst walking take a moment to breathe deeply – in through the nose, and out through the mouth. Or, join a class or try a new hobby. You might discover new skills, find an outlet for your inner-diva, or perhaps some interesting people to bounce ideas with. The best part of all of course, is as an adult – remember you can choose to leave if you don’t like it!!
No longer the pursuit of the retired, gardening can be a great way to teach both dexterity AND patience as you create and nurture your choice of greenery. Further to which, what you plant can be another form of self-expression and creativity giving you a sense of ownership.
The Kuala Lumpur KLCC park, for example, has a species of every tree found in Malaysia planted there along with a QR code to learn about them. The practice of including QR codes on nature walks is a great way to learn and chat – especially on family walks.
8. Cultivate your own green space
Even a window box or a house plant can bring you benefits of reducing your stress levels, sharpening your focus, and of course improving the quality of indoor air, with the recommended plants including:
areca, lady, dwarf date, and bamboo palms
Ficus tree (Healthline.com)
But what if Master Planning and Psychology were to work together?
What if the 4th space wasn't an escape, but instead a space "To Be"? A space which could of course offer a retreat from daily pressures, but one where we could reconnect in person rather than via a device, and one with the added benefits of being able to flourish?
In a world that is ever more connected online, we are missing out on the real benefits of being human. Touch, for example, one of the first instinctive behaviours a baby makes (and something which can convey more than words ever could) is often limited to our keyboards, swipe screens and implements. Our brains, our most valuable tool being made redundant or lazy by 21st century living. Most things arrive at the touch of a button – fast food, shopping, even potential relationships - and to pay for it we pursue the hedonic treadmill amidst competition and fear of missing out in the chase for "more and more and more" momentary pleasure. It is no wonder our mental, emotional and physical health is suffering. And when we begin to experience mental ILL health, what little we have left of our time and energy is them spent on making it better.
Yet, a space to be can provide us not only with an alternative and a place to recharge ourselves (rather than our devices), but importantly also capitalise on our brain's neuroplasticity*. So what if things have gotten away with us a little in a world increasingly neglectful of wellbeing(?) - we have the power to change all that.
* Neuroplasticity means is the chemical balance in our brain can be altered by sustained behaviours – these can be positive or negative. Ie. Even if we have been feeling down, and a focus on this has caused the brain to function in a certain way, changing our behaviour (eg. through exercise, getting out in the sun, practicing gratitude, hugging, mediation and so on…ie. other pursuits known to stimulate “happy hormones” or “happy neurotransmitters”) – can result in more positive pathways being build, or the negative ones being dampened.
The Green Block Hypothesis
This is what architectural design firm and Master Planners WATG are proposing:
Their "Green Block Hypothesis" is WATG's green reclamation of London's Fleet Street and other iconic places . “Green Block” brings with it a breathable solution to air filtration as it reduces pollution, car noise and even encourages back the bee population. There are more opportunities for walkers and cyclists with the additional benefits that exercise offers. After all, psychology has noted that many in good health live in the mountains, but were they drawn there, or are they a product of the environment? WATG suggests we could have both. Even restauranteurs could be encouraged to grow their own produce on "edible" bus stops or buildings, providing not only a form self-sustainability, but also an opportunity for immersive learning for those walking by.
WATG's Snr VP and Director of Master Planning & Landscape, John Goldwyn says “People who are all too often disconnected from nature should be allowed respite on their streets. The pandemic tapped into an underrepresented desire in urban dwellers to connect with nature. That desire is a human right, and the city needs to address it." Ray Mears, too, in his proposal for rewilding notes “We’ve forgotten how to be outdoors.” and reminds us that as beautiful as nature programmes are, they cannot substitute feeling the warmth on our faces, or the wind in our hair.
All too often we warn against a "one size fits all" approach...but how about a one project that benefits all... and much much more than escapism, beyond the insta-ready photographs, even exceeding the obvious climate benefits of greenery. It gives us a space set up for being well...a space where mind, body and spirit can not just live, but thrive.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For coaching tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt