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Constructing Nature

Research exploring the effects of spending time in nature and natural environments has consistently reported a wide range of both physical and mental health benefits. Whilst anecdotally and in the public zeitgeist these improvements appear almost self-evident, research into the underlying mechanisms of how natural environments provide these effects has been unfruitful. Additionally, most current research examining the effects of nature exposure have focused on typical children and adults, with almost no research exploring how these spaces may benefit neurodiverse populations.

Outside the simulation of Victoria Park at PEARL. This urban greenspace was chosen as the setting for our experiment. Photo courtesy of Alister Baird.

Several theories have been proposed regarding how nature may influence human health, these predominately focus on ability of nature to facilitate a reduction in harmful environment influences (air and noise pollution), or to provide a reduction in physiological stress, allowing restoration of cognitive (attentional) resources. Recent research has also started to examine the effects of natural tree oils, or organic compounds released by vegetation (called phytoncides), showing preliminary but interesting results on their effects on the human immune system. It is also possible that natural environments operate in complex interdisciplinary way on a diverse range of our senses and biology that we do not (yet) fully understand.

Our research project draws expertise from psychiatry, ecology, and engineering to explore and isolate specific environmental stimuli found in natural urban environments, also called urban greenspaces. The ability of UCL PEARL to replicate environmental conditions to unmatched level of specificity, has allowed us to attempt to simulate a London urban greenspace whilst also allowing us the ability to manipulate individual aspects (for example lighting and sound). With the aid of PEARLs technical staff, we developed and constructed a replica of an East London urban greenspace, one that allowed us to manually introduce or remove individual aspects of the environmental milieu.

Inside the simulation of Victoria Park created using video projection, sound, light and 'natural' objects. Photo courtesy of Alister Baird.

The focus of this research is to examine how these individual elements of urban greenspaces influence the physiology of neurodiverse children. We hope that by exploring how the various specific environmental elements influence these children, we can unveil insight into how nature provides its proposed therapeutic effects, but also critically, if these elements effect individuals homogenously or are idiosyncratic / hierarchical in nature. As this is, to the best of our knowledge, the first time an urban greenspace has been artificially simulated and controlled in research with neurodiverse children, this was also a proof-of-principle experiment. This means that we were exploring the validity of this type of research paradigm, and if it is viable to build upon this project in the future. We hope that the results of this work will help us to understand how urban greenspaces may benefit neurodiverse children. With additional research, this may translate into real world policy and design changes for residential environments and therapeutics for these children. This may also have implications for how we design cities and urban environments and how elements of nature are integrated into these design decisions.

- Alister Baird MSc, currently completing a PhD in Psychiatry at UCL

Twitter: @alister_baird, @REGEN_Study, @PearlPlace_

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