Ever since I was a child I’ve had a habit of stopping and staring off into the distance. I don’t really gaze at people, rather I lose myself in the sky or in the horizon, or in the city below. As humans we love lookouts and have built trails to high places all over the world. I greatly appreciate those people. Houses that come with beautiful scenery cost more, and hot air balloons were popular in part because they gave passengers a million dollar view. What do we see when we gaze at a static scene. The stars twinkle and slowly move, but we don’t really perceive that. The mountains certainly don’t go anywhere, and although trees wave in the wind, I doubt people really notice, I know I don’t. For me, a great view is not about attention to detail. Rather I think it relates to two important factors, the primordial connection with trees and nature, and the opportunity to become lost.
A couple of years ago, I attended a symposium on “green” urban planning. I was there because I am interested in the use of greenspace in the city. One of the presenters was a University professor in Chicago who studied the effect of trees on the mood of residents in low income housing. He discovered that people who lived in units with trees around them were happier, felt safer, and committed fewer violent crimes then those who did not have trees. Since the units were more or less identical in every other regard, and the tenants were randomly assigned to their units, he hypothesized that the trees could explain the discrepancy. He drew our attention to the primordial landscape, which was predominately the Savannah plains of Africa, with the occasional lush oasis. In a time when finding water was a matter of life and death, the sight of vegetation was comforting, and would have represented temporary refuge. Thus scenes of nature, particularly those with trees, help people relax.
Beyond that nature can be observed and enjoyed passively. This is what I mean by becoming lost and it is another reason that nature is so relaxing to watch. The theory goes that viewing a natural scene does not require the human brain to analyze in order to comprehend. Essentially, we enjoy the natural world because it is easy for us to grasp. Reading, watching films or tv, viewing art, attending a play or sporting event, all require a degree of higher thought to appreciate, whereas viewing a static scene of nature is simple and straightforward.
I suppose to some degree I am advocating increased greenspace in urban environments. I am actually very interested in the role of gardens in institutional settings. In homeless shelters, prisons, and hospitals there is some evidence that greenspace could improve the mood of clients/inmates and decrease incidents of violence. There is also the added environmental benefits that come from adding plant life to the urban landscape.