Research Summary

Exploring urban design strategies that maximize the benefits of urban nature for children's well-being

Integrating high-quality natural areas into dense urban settings offers benefits to children, other community members, the municipality, and the natural environment

Ecopsychology
2018

This paper focuses on urban design strategies that can be used to maximize the potential benefits and accessibility of nature for children. The discussion is based on the understanding that increasing access to well-designed natural areas in urban environments can reverse the decline in children’s well-being, while also benefiting the community and natural environment. Three general categories of urban nature design strategies are discussed: nature-integrated dense communities, directly beneficial nature space design strategies, and designs that indirectly increase children’s nature access.

The idea behind “nature-integrated dense communities” recognizes the importance of compact community design for nature access and children’s well-being. For most people, the majority of their nature experiences occurs close to where they live or work.  People without nature areas within walking distance of their home or work tend to spend considerably less time in natural places. Thus, integrating nature in dense urban areas is more likely to increase the frequency of children’s interactions with natural environments than integrating nature in low-density areas, such as the suburbs. Integrating nature in dense urban areas is also a cost-effective way to increase the desirability, quality, and value of dense communities. The benefits to residents of integrating nature into dense urban settings include greater perceptions of community safety and greater access to various social resources and spaces.

“Directly beneficial nature space design strategies” include (1) mitigating nature space safety concerns, (2) providing “wild” versus cultivated nature areas, (3) providing both small parks and larger park spaces, (4) providing nature-integrated housing, (5) returning nature to schools, and (6) integrating municipal infrastructure into parks. “Wild” nature areas should include diverse natural elements (boulders, trees for climbing, loose branches, etc.) that promote risky play and hands-on interactions with nature. “Designs that indirectly increase children’s nature access” focus on providing resources to parents and community members, including time-related resources. Time constraints prevent many parents from spending more time outdoors with their children. Living in dense urban environments can substantially reduce parents’ commute time to work and time for running errands. The resulting free time can benefit children in a variety of indirect ways. Improved land use efficiency, decreased household living costs, and increased opportunities for healthy social interactions are additional benefits of integrating nature into dense urban environments.

When high-quality urban nature spaces are integrated into dense communities, those communities become more desirable places to live. This benefits the environment by reducing urban sprawl and the degradation of natural areas. Integrating nature into dense communities also makes nature more accessible to low-income people living in those environments.  This is an important social justice issue, as “low-income communities tend to have the least access to nature spaces yet stand to benefit from them the most, due to their lack of socioeconomic resources and increased rate of socioeconomic stressors.” This paper highlights “the need for urban nature design strategies to address diverse socioeconomic and urban design issues, in order to maximize the benefits nature can confer to children.”

Citation
Mangone, G. (2018). Exploring urban design strategies that maximize the benefits of urban nature for children's well-being. Ecopsychology, 10(4). doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/eco.2018.0054