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Illustrations by Alex Pabian.

Nature and Health in the Time of COVID-19: A Chat with Author Florence Williams

This interview series is a part of a collaboration between IDEO, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Building H to imagine how we might design health into everyday life.

Joanne Cheung
May 28, 2020 · 7 min read

To design health back into everyday life, we need to understand what health means for people in this new context. Starting here, even the most unexpected moments can be optimized for health and wellbeing.

For our first interview, we’re unpacking the value of experiencing nature. When we think of the environment, it’s easy to think of natural wonders — mountain peaks, river valleys — and take everyday nature for granted. Yet, even a casual bird call or the tree outside your window can play a surprisingly essential role in your health. To learn more, we’re speaking with Florence Williams: journalist, podcaster, and author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.

Joanne Cheung, IDEO CoLab: You’ve done wonderful research on the benefits of nature and being outdoors. COVID-19 has drastically changed the relationship between people and being outside. 74 miles of streets in Oakland are now open to pedestrians. Things that were improbable before may now indicate more permanent trends, such as cities privileging people over cars. Are you seeing any shifts that might point to positive, long-lasting change?

Florence Williams: This is really a moment and an opportunity. Science is showing that when we experience “awe”, our brains stop and our nervous systems slow down. We’re trying to take in this new information and process it in a new way. In that moment, there’s a window for cognitive shifting that opens up, and the same thing happens in an event like this pandemic.

It’s “awe” because it’s on a scale that we cannot really comprehend.

Nature as our mental health resource

Joanne: Before COVID-19, there were many barriers keeping people from spending time outdoors and preventing the creation of green spaces in cities. Are you seeing any of those previously immovable barriers becoming more mobile?

Florence: I think one of the barriers has been cognitive. I don’t think people thought of their parks as a mental health resource, and there’s this new awareness of the mental health benefits of nature. So I think that cognitive barrier is moving a little bit as people realize, “I have to get out for a walk, I’m going crazy in my house.”

Nature as our preventative medicine

Joanne: It’s interesting thinking about the types of nature that are available to people in the built environment. I’m wondering whether these spaces can offer the kinds of mental physical restoration and rejuvenation that you’re speaking about. Do you have a mental taxonomy of different types of nature and the different forms of restorations they offer?

Florence: 100 million Americans do not live within a 10 minute walk of a park. So, I look quite a bit at this dosage and intensity question: How much nature do you need to gain these benefits? It seems that there’s a dose curve — there are benefits to be gained even from a window view of green space.

I think there’s a huge role for institutional nature. If we believe that access is important on a daily level, we need to have nature pervasive in our schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods. Then every school should have some kind of schoolyard, and there are some really interesting studies on the exercise kids get in these various schoolyards. Boys, for example, typically run around more than girls in conventional urban play spaces. But as soon as you go into green, natural play spaces, the girls start running around just as much. So it’s become this kind of gender equalizer, as well as a kind of social equalizer.

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Nature as our subconscious home

Joanne: The equalizer is a compelling metaphor for health. Have you found other metaphors or analogies that can broaden how we think about health?

Florence: I think it’s important to micro-dose nature, micro-dose some quiet. Finding moments of peace throughout the day that can be facilitated by time outside. When we see an interesting pattern in a tree, it provides this little micro pulse of something calming to our nervous system that we don’t necessarily notice because it’s almost subconscious.

Now that people are seeing their cities in this new way, I’m hoping that there’s momentum behind “Hey, let’s leave this street open”. Maybe we can leave some places quieter. Let’s advocate for — this is my pet peeve — electric leaf blowers instead of gas powered leaf blowers.

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Nature as our healthcare companion

Joanne: That makes me think about the people who form a web of care around an individual. Typically when we think about health, we think only of the healthcare professionals, but in your example the person who’s using the leaf blower has a health relationship with me because that’s a source of noise. We’re meshed within a network that very much contributes to our health and wellbeing.

Florence: Well, sometimes we’re not very good at even noticing the people around us. The people we share our cities with…we put them out of mind quite easily.

When we access moments of beauty, even in small doses during our day, studies show that they make us more pro-social. So after looking at something beautiful, even a photo of a whale as opposed to a photo of a shopping mall, the people looking at the beautiful photos will donate more money, they will perform better in teams. The studies are pretty clear on this, that there’s something about nature that is actually good for civilization. Again, it’s super subtle, but it brings us out of the internal soundtrack of our own problems and makes us think about ourselves as a community. It pulls us out of our drama. Seeing nature gives us a little bit of humility. In Western cultures that can seem like a negative concept—we don’t want to feel “lesser than”, but when we do, we feel more connected to other people. It’s not that our self-esteem drops, it’s just that other things take on significance as they should.

Nature as our lifelong gift

Joanne: How could designers navigate the fine line between creating awe-inspiring experiences as well as the freedom of thought and choice? There’s an interesting tension between designing for agency as well as the experience of collective awe.

Florence: I think it’s really important to think about how we educate children and what we expose them to. It starts an appreciation for beauty or arts-based education. This is like one of the first things that gets cut all the time. And yet an appreciation for beauty is really important to being able to live a fulfilling, rich, and healthy life. We are learning this more and more from science.

You can cultivate also in children a connection to nature, and once you do that, it’s a gift and a tool that they have for their entire lives.

Joanne: I love the thought of the gift — the gift has a net positive and regenerative component that is not like you use it, it’s used up, then you get another one, but it’s something that’s continuously nourishing. It’s a wonderful prompt to think about when designing objects.

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