Healthy Schools

Outdoor Spaces Help Promote Mental Health and Wellness on Campus

By John F. Wright and Jack Carman

Today, college students are experiencing tremendous pressure and stress caused by an ever-broadening range of influences and factors.  For each person, the root causes of these feelings are different. Some students propagate stress from within through self-imposed demands to achieve specific goals. Others are more susceptible to external influences and the expectations to act a certain way or conform to particular roles.  These pressures can include academic success, adapting to a different environment, balancing schedules, jobs, finances, extra-curricular activities, and so many other college experiences that can be new and intimidating. In addition, there are social and emotional pressures related to identity, awareness, and relationships.  The end result can be a burdensome combination of internal and external stress for students, negatively impacting many aspects of social development, learning, and overall well-being.

The current pandemic further exacerbates all these factors. Social interaction, academic growth, and emotional development have been deeply affected over the past twenty months. Academic institutions have been working diligently to study and observe these evolving trends to mitigate the negative impacts on their campuses.  Many are consistently evaluating, developing, and adjusting creative methods to help identify and respond to these challenging influencers. As part of this response, more and more institutions have been implementing mental health activities that incorporate nature to highlight the importance of wellness as a component of everyday college living.

Before wellness in higher education came to the forefront, the health care field had been incorporating nature-based programs for years to help alleviate stress, staff burnout and improve the overall health and well-being of patients, staff, and caregivers. These methods include the design of healing gardens in hospitals, dementia gardens for older adults with cognitive impairments, physical therapy gardens in rehabilitation centers, meditation gardens in hospice settings, and therapy gardens for cancer patients.

Outdoor spaces promote mental health and wellness

Physicians have also been prescribing walks in parks for their patients (parkrxamerica.org), noting the many benefits that this simple activity can yield for both mind and body. Research has shown that physical and visual access to nature reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, balances circadian rhythms, and encourages positive health outcomes.  As environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich, Ph.D. stated, “nature is a positive distraction.”

A select group of colleges and universities has begun implementing nature practices through various activities and in specific settings. With a student population of approximately 24,000 and located in a beautifully landscaped environment overlooking Cayuga Lake in Ithaca, NY, Cornell University has implemented a Campus Rx program to prescribe nature for the students. The website provides a list of the outdoor setting and links to locate the natural areas that students can visit to meditate, relax, and enjoy nature (naturerx.cornell.edu/default). The Nature Rx Program utilizes the campus’s natural surroundings to positively impact the mental health of students, faculty, and administrative staff. The program was adapted from the National Park Rx program, through which an increasing number of physicians prescribe walks in parks and outdoor spaces for their patients as part of their healthcare regime.

The University of Richmond has recently completed the Well-Being Center, which includes space for yoga and wellness classes, a therapy dog, and a meditation garden.  Their website talks about how “mindfulness improves well-being, physical health, and mental health.” Additional resources help students adjust to campus life, including restorative healthy sleep, nutrition, and stress management.

The entire campus of Swarthmore College is a public garden – the Scott Arboretum. Students are immersed in nature as they look out from the dormitory and classroom windows and as they walk around campus. Academic settings such as this have been studied, and the results show that an individual’s depression is reduced and there’s a perceived increase in quality of life.

Integrating these elements can be initiated in various ways, from smaller improvement and restoration projects to the greater campus master planning level.  Spiezle has been incorporating many of these beneficial approaches and features into their planning and design projects for years, long before there were well-defined labels and common acceptance of the benefits of natural interactions.  As a sustainably focused firm with a diverse portfolio of impactful projects, we continue to draw upon past success and emerging research to refine and enhance the breadth of wellness-focused design.

The creation of outdoor wellness programs is unique to each campus and the overall needs of the college or university. Activities are developed by incorporating walking paths, sitting areas, quiet, reflective spaces, water features, and areas created to take advantage of all that nature offers. These outdoor areas should be designed to activate all the senses. Feeling the breeze upon our skin, the smell of fresh-cut grass and flowers in bloom, hearing the rustle of leaves, or watching cloud formations, are all experiences that relieve stress and lower blood pressure. Research indicates that these and other connections to nature provide positive health outcomes.

Taking advantage of the currently available resources within a collegiate campus is relatively easy to do. Small steps, such as adding a meditation garden; wellness walk; or a sensory garden, are not expensive projects to fund when compared to larger building projects. In fact, donors are more apt to provide funding because the costs are low, and the benefits are great. These projects should be a part of the campus master plan and can be highlighted through various channels to the campus community.  The positive aspects of creating a campus nature wellness program are a valuable and meaningful part of the lives of the students, faculty, and administration.

Architecture and the interplay of interior and exterior space is an integral part of the effort to promote healthy campuses, improve student well-being and integrate natural experiences into their daily activities. The ability to listen and observe, understand and appreciate, collaborate, and share are important aspects of client service and ultimate success. It helps to approach these engagements from multiple perspectives with a team drawing from diverse backgrounds of architects, landscape architects, planners, and designers, each with nuanced expertise and a passion for identifying and enhancing the mission and quality of campus life for the client.

Done well, the investment in healthy outdoor spaces can yield great dividends for institutions of higher learning. It is crucial to engage an architecture firm that can bring various disciplines to the table and offer innovative ideas to capitalize on existing campus space or adapt a long-term master plan. The focus remains on the students, staff, and faculty as they are the ones that ultimately benefit from sound planning and design.

For any questions, please contact John F. Wright, Principal of Higher Education, or Jack Carman, Director of Landscape Architecture, both with Spiezle Architectural Group.

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