For the first time in human history, humans are increasingly turning away from wild spaces. By the year 2050, expectations have determined that nearly 7 billion people or two-thirds of the human population will live in urban areas. Meanwhile, half of the world’s poor already live in Earth’s most populous areas where access to natural space is dwindling. Re-imagining the value of nature is alleviating symptoms of urbanization that disproportionately impact the world’s poor. In Japan, the practice of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) serves as a functional detox from the unnatural environment. The practice presents a fresh perspective on humanity’s relationship with nature and provides insight into the importance of nature in sustainable development.
The Environment and Health
Throughout human history, the natural world guided people in their daily lives. However, urbanization is reducing human exposure to nature and increasingly introducing citizens to harmful pollution that exacerbates illnesses that disproportionately affect the poor.
In developing nations, illnesses are most associated with hazards of the urban environment carries. In Dharavi, India’s most densely populated and poorest community, a lack of clean water and sanitation or trash disposal systems are among the issues contributing to a lower quality of living. Despite this one square mile area housing close to 1 million people, there are no parks, trees or wildlife besides disease-carrying rodents and stray pets. In addition, summer temperatures soar and monsoonal rainstorms find just enough room for flooding to spawn mosquito-borne illnesses. Neighborhoods such as Dharavi depict a negative relationship between the urban environment and health.
Health and Forest-Bathing
Poverty often has links to mental illness. This means many of the symptoms of a polluted urban environment contribute to a higher likelihood of stress. Socio-environmental factors as a whole play a large role in determining the health of individuals. However, studies often overlook the tangible effect that the physical environment plays in development. Shinrin-yoku, the Japanese term for forest-bathing, provides insight into what humans are missing in an absence of nature.
Japanese health officials examined the relationship that exposure to natural places has on human health. While studying the practice of forest-bathing and bodily responses to nature, scientists discovered a direct correlation between health and exposure to nature. For example, studies determined that exposure to nature promotes health benefits, including “lower levels of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure,” more than urban exposure. Responses often lead to a lower likelihood of developing serious illnesses that are too expensive for poor nations to address. This begs the question: Do the environments citizens live in hold them back?
The Economics of the Wild
Nature adds a quantifiable impact on economies across the globe. This is especially important for poorer communities that experience direct impacts from the environments they exist in. Singapore, one of the most urbanized nations in the world and previously home to poor communities comparable to Dharavi, is integrating various forms of nature into urban design through the Singapore Green Plan. Sustainable developments feature the city’s main attractions and are helping to alleviate poverty. This means more revenue for the local economy and higher incomes, coupled with an improved quality of life. Comparably, a modern appreciation of nature is proving rewarding across the globe in alleviating symptoms of urbanization. In terms of health, Singapore’s increased greenery also improves the quality of living by negating the urban heat effect and air quality.
For similar reasons, outdoor recreation constitutes one of the most rapidly growing industries worldwide. Japan’s forest bathing is a cultural phenomenon in which citizens escape to natural space. For the United States, hiking and action sports such as mountain biking and skiing are becoming increasingly popular. A whole economy centers around this type of recreation. According to the Outdoor Recreation Association, recreation centered around the U.S. outdoors generates $887 billion annually. The wild is a source of wellbeing, economic development and cultural significance for millions. However, for the developing world, nature is still largely inaccessible, especially for impoverished citizens in urban areas.
Uncontrolled development is not the only cause of the environment in poor nations. Rather, the environment in poor urban areas is often responsible for the area’s poverty in the first place. Unsustainable development exacerbates symptoms of poverty. The absence of nature in urban areas holds poor communities down.
Singapore is not the only one incorporating sustainable development into its future planning. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) describes environmental aid as “necessary for improving economic, social and political conditions in developing countries.” Sustainable development and wellbeing increasingly look to nature as a fundamental aspect of development.
Increasing Access to Natural Spaces
Historically, access to nature by means of escape is recreational freedom for privileged, fully-developed nations. In developing nations, the environment is a determiner of the quality of life. Unfortunately, urban areas including Dharavi and Singapore do not have the same access to nature as Japan’s forests. This means that forest bathing is a distant dream for millions living in the most densely populated areas of the globe. Increasing accessible natural spaces and integrating nature into an urban design is fundamental to increasing the quality of life for developing nations.
Investing in poor communities is not separate from investing in the environment. The health, wealth and development of communities remain largely dependent on natural space. Regardless of status, forest-bathing in Japan presents an often overlooked benefit of nature that surrounds all of human life. Poverty and the environment are two heavily interconnected issues that can be and currently are receiving attention.
– Harrison Vogt