Connections with Nature

‘Part of a deep sadness we carry with us as a species is the barely conscious loss of a loving relationship with the world around us.’

Clare Cooper Marcus, Professor Emeritus, Departments of Architecture and Landscape Architecture,University of California, Berkeley ( 2006)

A Government White Paper, published this summer (June 2011), expressed the desire for children to do more of their learning outside. The ‘Living Classrooms’ scheme has called for outdoor learning to be placed on the National Curriculum. The Paper expresses concern that ‘children are becoming disconnected from the natural environment,’ and that strengthening connections between people and nature will be to ‘the benefit of both.’ It continues: ‘Young people themselves say that outdoor space is one of the things that they need to ‘feel good and do well.’’ With support from teachers too, the desire for change appears to be universal. Where does this desire come from? How important is our connection with nature? And how do our surroundings influence our behaviour?

The villa gardens of ancient Egyptian nobility and the Persian walled gardens of Mesopotamia suggest that human beings have expressed their need to remain in touch with nature since the beginnings of urbanization. We have always known how good or indeed necessary nature is to us. Indeed, studies have shown that the amount of green space in an area is generally associated with better health including reduced mortality. (Mitchell, R. & Popham, F. 2008)Compared to the innocence and peace of nature, built up areas are perceived to be polluted and corrupt. When we raise children we often consider moving out of the town or city, as if it is no place them. Since biblical times, tales of Sodom and Gomorah, vice, disease, danger, perversion and greed have been associated with the city. Myth nudges us to leave in search of goodness.

 ‘Goodness resides, as does beauty, truth and soul, in trees, rocks, streams, mountains, flowers, but not in streets, offices, garages, airports and apartments.’(Hillman, 2006)

 When we build schools, space for nature is usually a casualty of financial constraint; we build for ‘purpose.’ Whether it is a new school, an office building or a shopping centre, developers plan their nature budgets as the last step in construction. A fountain, trees or flowerbeds can all be cancelled if the budget is spent. These things may not seem economical, but they may well be essential. Building on school playing fields is another horrific trend and there is less and less natural space for pupils to spend time in or even look at.If you work in a built up area where do you go at lunchtime? I’ve watched office workers in London rush out of their dark glass buildings, in search of the nature offered by a park, a graveyard even, or a seat on the riverbank to admire the ebb and flow of the Thames.

Water itself represents life and our ability to go on. A fountain in a square or park is a reference to a natural spring. Rivers once gave us transportation, somewhere to settle, where life was made easier. We could fish, keep cool, irrigate our crops and relax in the knowledge of a continuous flow.  In time, Latin nations built their promenades and Northern Europe built its wharfs. The riverside was where people met, relaxed, traded and ate; a place where life happened.  People being people.Living so close to water eventually became less vital; or so we thought. Post-industrial revolution, we focused on polluting these veins of our landscape, ignoring their importance. In recent years we have begun to tackle this legacy and thankfully things have improved. Now developers are exploiting our desire to be near the natural flow of water.

In East Asia, water is an integral part of all garden design, reflecting light and surrounding beauty. ‘The Chinese say that a portrait without eyes is a garden without water; it has no smile, no glint, no sparkle, no animation.’ (Morris 1986) Practically we can now get by without being so close to water, but something deep inside us longs to return. Water is that great metaphor for our unconscious. Love itself, in the shape of Venus, came from the sea and Dionysus from the deep. If we are asked to think of somewhere we’d really like to be, the chances are that it’s by an ocean, lake, river or a waterfall. Too few of our schools and colleges have any such view. They are banished to cheaper land.

The spaces we spend time in are confounding variables, influencing emotion and action; sometimes feeding our human needs, often starving us, stirring up rebellion. Far too often we restrain our dreams with inhibiting space, badly designed or just inappropriate for our desires. It seems mad to hide ourselves away from nature and anything beautiful. Look around you now. What space are you in? How is that space influencing your behaviour? Is it a natural setting? Was it designed by sympathetic human hands? Or maybe by an architect motivated by finance, rather than romance? The spaces that make us feel good are full of beauty, whether it be nature or glorious buildings decorated with art. You want to whisk off your new lover for a romantic break? Will you choose Frankfurt or Birmingham? Or Rome or Paris? The latter two may appear preferable, but why is that? What is it about these two cities that induce romantic feeling? Is it possible that by just imagining the surroundings you feel different?

The German psychologist Rudolph Arnheim once asked his students to describe a good and a bad marriage using only line drawings, finding that good marriages were generally represented with smoother, less spiky lines.(Arnheim 1969).  If lines can represent emotions, is it surprising that our surroundings speak to us? What impact can a whole city have? Breast shape domes, large phallic towers, flowing rivers, cherub statuettes, spouting fountains, Psyche holding Eros, the naked David, and Venus, the goddess of love; even this sentence may induce arousal. Compare this to the straight lines of modern cities, their concrete car parks, glass shopping malls and blank grey walls, and at a deep level at least we all cry out for more curves, more nature and more art. We rebel with graffiti or by Guerrilla Gardening in a desperate bid to change a place into something more right for us.

We are human beings just trying to be human. Architecture has to be beautiful; after all it is competing with the standard bearing alternative – nature. How dare we disrespect this omnipotent opponent.

‘You have to put into practice the concept that man has a right to beauty. It makes people’s lives better.’ Oscar Niemeyer, Architect, (2008)

Our children need access to natural beauty in their daily lives, rather than grow into adults unaware of its importance, lacking a relationship with the world around them. Caroline Spelman, the Environmental Secretary, expressed her hope for the future: ‘What I’d really like to see happening as a result of this White Paper is more children enjoying nature and continuing that interest into adulthood, so that they pass that passion for the environment down through the generations. That would be a legacy well worth leaving.’

Inside our schools the classroom ceilings are generally low, with oppressive lighting to deter any pupil wishing to gaze towards the heavens for inspiration. There is rarely enough natural light to study in. Windows sometimes don’t even exist. Imagine that for a minute, thirty children in a room without a window, breathing stale air. Nature completely absent from their world. Add to that the typically narrow corridors, construction materials of concrete, or short-term prefabricated classrooms hinting at a lack of importance attached to their venue for learning and realising their dreams.  Dinner is served on plastic covered tables, to students on plastic chairs, surrounded by bland walls, on dull floors, under fluorescent bulbs. Cameras and metal detectors are becoming more common too, as if violence is expected. Schools are behavioural settings – pupils will take on the behaviour expected of them. We are all creatures of habit and like to be reminded how to behave. Each space expects something from us, moulding us into what it wants.

In the 1960s, the psychologist, Roger Baker, began to study entire days in the lives of children, recording all of their interactions with people, places and objects, finding that children’s settings were more important determinants of their behaviour than their underlying personalities.

Children thrive in plentiful space, the greener the better. They need views to dream into and nature to both calm and inspire them. Day after day, the pressure builds up, imprisoned and without nourishment, the soul of the child is likely to weaken or rebel.

Columbine High, the scene of a high school mass shooting in America in 1999, had high-density classrooms; children without space. Local taxpayers had recently turned down an increase in tax that would have lowered the number of children in each class.

What should be the creative process of shaping our spaces, has been stifled by the foolish motives of modernity. Individually and collectively, we miss the opportunity to fuse our dreams with the real world to create spaces that are truly right for us. In the ensuing confusion, we are left with spaces that we don’t quite fit and spaces that shape our behaviour, rather than contain who we are.

I hope this White Paper is a seed that grows into a greater understanding of the importance of settings for education, and in turn creates a generation more in touch with the environment and their own human needs.