In early 2021 our Board Member and Lead researcher Dr Diana Benjumea was selected to join a prestigious Health Leaders Network initiated by the Urban Land Institute (ULI). Health Leaders Network is a platform aimed at sharing knowledge and ideas with health leaders across continents. It gathers professionals across the globe with the skills and knowledge to generate impact and help improve health outcomes in their professional practice with the communities.
Among multiple activities on the 09th of June 2021, the group presentation session features Dr Diana's presentation titled Networks of Nature: Designing for harmonious interactions in tangible and intangible ‘spaces’. In it, she introduces NeuroLandscape and some of the work and research projects she has conducted in different countries aimed at investigating the confounding variables that affect the eudemonic health and well-being of urban residents.
Additionally, she explored how the solutions taken in urban spaces in Singapore to promote health (e.g., green infrastructure) can also introduce negative responses from urban residents that are not adapted to coexist with a more biodiverse urban space.
A conceptual model (Nature place-making) abstracted from our scientific explorations unveils the main underlying social/design components needed to promote harmonious coexistence with nature in heavily urbanised cities.
Eascape, a new VR relaxation app created by neuroscientists and landscape architects, makes it possible to benefit from the healing power of nature without leaving home. The test version of the app has just been launched, as the whole world deals with the consequences of coronavirus waves and lockdowns. It is not a coincidence. In this difficult time creators of the app encourage us all to start looking at VR technology as an effective self-care tool, ready to reconnect us with nature and ease our minds.
An intensive work on the project started almost exactly one year ago – during the first lockdown. We wanted to better understand people's psychological needs in times of confinement, so we conducted the world-wide survey on this very topic. What we have learned was very striking, although not that surprising – at least not to us – says Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo, co-founder of Eascape, then she adds: It turned out that what we, humans, miss the most in such difficult conditions is, apart from being close with relatives and friends, a deeper connection with nature. The pandemic has shown what neuroscientists and environmental psychologists have known for a long time – that being around green spaces is crucial to our mental health and cognitive processes such as memory, attention or creativity.
We need nature more than ever
If we talk about our exposure to nature the situation had been dire even before pandemic, especially in big cities. Science shows that urban, stressful and chaotic environments full of stimulation increase the risk of psychiatric disorders by 38% as compared to rural living. We work long hours in office spaces, away from green scenery, then we go home, where we often stay until the next day, too tired to go out and have at least a stroll in a nearby park. And even if we are keen to spend some relaxing time in green environments – we often simply cannot do so, since due to the urbanization and biodiversity loss processes we have no longer unlimited access to such spaces. This simply cannot be good to our well-being. We need to take action. We must be mindful of what we expose ourselves to everyday, to keep a healthy mind, help with depression and anxiety, alleviate stress, and reduce the risk of dementias – explains Nicolas Escoffier, one of the creators of Eascape.
Landscapes that ease our minds
Eascape builds on the concept of Contemplative Landscapes, an idea conceived in 2011 by Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo, as part of her scientific work in Landscape Architecture and Urban Ecology. In her research, she found that there are certain characteristics of the scenic views that can influence the human brain to improve mental health and well-being. Contemplative Landscapes should for example contain a certain landform with many layers, natural asymmetry and the depth of the view.
Being surrounded by such scenery we should be able to observe subtle phenomena such as the play of light and shade, trembling leaves or shadows growing and shrinking with the passage of the sun. What adds to contemplativeness of a landscape are also archetypal elements like a running body of water, a path, an old tree or a big stone.
The space should also carry a character of peace and silence, providing comfort and a sense of solitude. It activates our nervous system and a built-in biophilia – a state that exists in all of us since the time when we were still living in close relation with nature – says Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo.
VR experience like no other
Eascape is nothing like VR games. It differs even from other VR relaxation apps. Most of the VR apps absorb our attention completely. We have tasks to do, fantastic creatures to meet or new things to learn. All this generates the beta waves in our brain, making our mind work at top speed, and eventually causing mental fatigue. Eascape is not a gaming experience. It works in the opposite way to generate the alpha waves which are characteristic for the state of relaxation and mindfulness. On a daily basis, we have access to such state only through sleep, meditation or close contact with nature – says Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo.
The app contains full HD 3D 180° videos, recorded in a scientifically confirmed Contemplative Landscape site: Parchi di Nervi in Genoa, Italy. The user is able to hear the natural, relaxing sound of chirping birds and teleport to four locations across the lawn. The environment has been designed in a very minimalistic way, intentionally deprived of special effects or extraordinary elements. It is a place for soft fascination and gentle exploration that calms down the mind. The whole experience should feel as a pleasant mindfulness practice, available at one’s fingertips. The Eascape team recommends spending 10 min per day in Eascape for 2 weeks to see the improvements in mood. A pilot test showed 32% reduction of depressive mood after just 7 min using Eascape demo, when compared to another VR environment.
Healthy VR environments to the rescue of today’s societies
We are sure that healthy VR environments can make a huge change in the way we as society deal with mental health problems – says Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo. Desire to help those who need access to nature have brought together the Eascape team which consists of people from all around the world. Growing up, they were all observing different kinds of landscapes, learning how it can affect people's well-being. That was a huge source of inspiration.
When the world of Academia meets VR industry
Among Eascape team members there are scientists from University of Porto and National University of Singapore who specialize in Neuroscience, Environmental Psychology and Landscape Architecture. Why did they decide to go out with their expertise beyond the world of Academia and cross their paths with the VR industry? We wanted to use our knowledge and create a tool that would be accessible and helpful for everyone, especially for those who struggle with depression, anxiety, sleeplessness or burnout, as well as for elderly people who due to their health conditions often stay in isolation – says Nicolas Escoffier.
An invitation to a green peaceful change
A free version of Eascape is being launched right now on Oculus. But that is just the beginning. We dream big. We intend to conduct further research on the app, adjust it to particular groups of users and add new healthy environments based on Contemplative Landscapes from all corners of the world. But for now, we just want as many people as possible to try Eascape and be part of our green peaceful change. Our app is not about replacing nature – that’s simply impossible. But when you simply cannot access it, it is as close as it gets to the real experience – says Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo.
The fast-paced urbanization and disconnection of people from nature and the current series of lockdowns, contribute to an increasing burden of mental health disease in cities. Researchers have estimated that it is 39% more likely to develop depression when living in urbanized areas as compared to rural regions [source]. Other mental illnesses and neurodegenerative disorders such as anxiety, substance abuse, and dementia are also taking a large toll on the lives of urban dwellers.
The environmental determinants of this phenomenon are most obviously the noise, pollution, and abundance of distracting elements in the space, which keep attention at the mode of alertness. In addition to these factors, there are certain visual constraints and limited contact with nature, which contribute a substantial psychological burden to those living in urbanized spaces.
There are a lot of unanswered questions about the specific mechanisms of why this happens and, more importantly, how to design our cities to not only prevent mental illness but also improve our wellbeing. Several research teams around the world, including our scientists and landscape architects at NeuroLandscape, have been investigating the influence of exposure to different living environments on brain activity.
From multiple neuroscience experiments and cross-sectional analyses, it seems that the quantity of green cover in the city is not enough to trigger a beneficial mental health response. The proximity and accessibility of green spaces in relation to residency is a very important start point to mitigate the mental health decline but does not consistently determine better mental health outcomes. Like in many other aspects of life quality outperforms quantity.
In the era of the color green, urban planners, landscape architects and city managers, lend me your ears! —Do not green cities mindlessly.
There are certain types and components of urban green spaces which can reduce stress levels, restore our attention, regulate emotions, bring back positive motivation, and improve cognitive functioning by just passively experiencing them [our library on that topic]. They include open and panoramic landscape compositions, which allow far-away views into the landscape, but also enclosed pocket gardens inviting for calm relaxation and solitary contemplation. The visibility of natural asymmetry, undulating landforms and a diversified skyline also count towards that restorative effect. Among many other salutogenic landscape design strategies, seasonally changing, lush vegetation, and the presence of strong symbolic features, such as water, play an important role too.
In the endeavor to create liveable cities we have been through several stages, starting with the consideration of functionality and logistics, which was followed by improvements to sanitation, safety, equity, greening and sustainability, and finally led up to a focus on the mental health. The research to support this latest stage is ongoing. However, it is becoming clear that mentally healthy cities rely on the quality rather than quantity of green and natural elements.
With that in mind, nature is not to be visited (like visiting a gallery or animal park) but rather, a backdrop to our daily events and activities. For this vision to be feasible and effective, evidence-based landscape design is indispensable.
President and Co-founder of NeuroLandscape. She is a Ph.D. in landscape architecture and urban ecology, who has explored the relationship between the different features of the natural and built environment’s influence on human health and wellbeing. In her research she has successfully incorporated neuroscience tools to investigate the changes in brainwave oscillation in participants exposed to different types of designed landscape. She has introduced and operationalized the term contemplative landscape and proposed a quantitative assessment scale to distinguish landscape views according to which are most beneficial for mental health in terms of passive exposure. She has developed several research projects worldwide and established international research networks across multiple universities. She is an originator of the idea for the VR_HEATHER project, which builds upon her research and is also in line with the statutory goals of NeuroLandscape.
Our programme Planting Seeds of Empowerment Mental Health and Well-being of the Communities starts this year with a new project created in collaboration with international organisations to emphasise the importance of nature in the mental health and well-being of people residing in heavily urbanised cities.
The project entitled: Networks of Nature Integrating Urban Farming in the city Fabric will introduce and educative platform that will provide knowledge about the importance of individual and community actions in urban farming activities as accelerators for positive environmental change in Indonesia, Philippines, and Singapore.
Joining efforts with two partnering organisations Binatani Sejahtera Foundation (Indonesia) and Technical Assistance Movement for People and Environment Inc (TAMPEI Philippines), Networks of Nature will provide a platform for empowerment towards nature actions to enable a shared sense of community and support. Three main educational modules will be developed focusing on: Urban farming, improving mental health through urban farming, and adaptable architecture infrastructures for urban farming. Our combined efforts from Indonesia, Philippines, and Singapore will bring different sets of skills and expertise that will also help those engaged in the Networks of Nature to feel supported and connected to a global community.
Networks of Nature Integrating Urban Farming in the city Fabric was selected among the best five projects during the Gobeshona Global Conference in January this year. We will be running this project with the financial support of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCD), Climate Justice Resilience Funds, and Gobeshona Global conference.
EASCAPE VR – our first Virtual Healthy Environment launching soon!
Thanks to Virtual Reality technology, our mission of providing science-based mental health tools through bringing people closer to nature, and specifically Contemplative Landscapes, has taken life in the form of EASCAPE.
It’s our free VR app that enables you to enjoy Contemplative Landscapes from the comfort of your home.
Because it lets you escape from everyday stress to immerse yourself in the healing power of nature, to ease the mind and enjoy beautiful Contemplative Landscapes carefully curated by scientists, whenever and wherever you decide to – all you need is a pair of VR goggles. After an intensive season of work and scientific testing with our partners, EPIC VR and Brainstorm, we are ready to share this exciting news with you - our app is becoming available very soon!
The book is intended for citizens and political decision-makers interested in systems perspectives of urban health and well-being seeking for inspiration to find solutions for the increasing complexity of cities and the environmental, social, and health impacts of urbanization.
In our paper entitled: Coping with Extreme Circumstances Through Community-Led Local Nature Interventions: A Science-based Policy Analysis, we discuss
the importance of the Local Nature Interventions Projects (LNIP) that are created by low-income communities as coping strategies to extreme events to help them sustain
health and well-being.
We present examples of the LNIP taking place during the Covid-19 pandemic and we argue that the LNIP are part of a secondary green network that could be acknowledged as part of the main city’s urban green infrastructure. Therefore, the internal capacities of the communities to create sustainable projects in the natural and built environment across time should be acknowledged and supported in future urban green projects. With these preliminary findings, we seek to draw attention towards LNIP initiatives as they could become alternatives to sustain community empowerment, environmental awareness, and health and well-being across settlements located in extreme urban environments.
COVID-19, Cities and Health: A View from New York (Jo Ivey Boufford and Anthony Shih)
Current and Future Human Exposure to High Atmospheric Temperatures in the Algarve, Portugal: Impacts and Policy Recommendations(André Oliveira, Filipe Duarte Santos, and Luís Dias)
Neuroscience-Based Urban Design for Mentally Healthy Cities(Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo)
The Role of Money for a Healthy Economy(Felix Fuders)
Developing Health-Promoting Schools: An Initiative in Government Schools of Indore City, India(Alsa Bakhtawar)
Mobility and COVID-19: Time for a Mobility Paradigm Shift (Carolyn Daher, Sarah Koch, Manel Ferri, Guillem Vich, Maria Foraster, Glòria Carrasco, Sasha Khomenko, Sergio Baraibar, Laura Hidalgo, and Mark Nieuwenhuijsen)
COVID-19 Shows Us the Need to Plan Urban Green Spaces More Systemically for Urban Health and Wellbeing(Jieling Liu)
How Lack or Insufficient Provision of Water and Sanitation Impacts Women’s Health Working in the Informal Sector: Experiences from West and Central Africa(H. Blaise Nguendo Yongsi)
Planning Models for Small Towns in Tanzania(Dawah Lulu Magembe-Mushi and Ally Namangaya)
Coping with Extreme Circumstances Through Community-Led Local Nature Interventions: A Science-Based Policy Analysis(Diana Benjumea and Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo)
NeuroLandscape featured in BBC "My Perfect City" Series episode which was released on: 30 Dec 2020
New episode of the BBC World Service "My perfect city" features Dr Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo among other experts. They discuss Singapore as a city which attempts to improve residents' mental wellbeing through urban design.
Generally, people in cities are likely to experience mental health problems. This counts for about 38% more than people living outside of big cities. Urban greening and creating therapeutic gardens with contemplative features can really help. But also, promoting high amenity public spaces, physical exercise, housing security and social services are important too! These solutions can make a city more liveable but also reduce rates of disorders such as OCD, anxiety and depression.
But are these community-based, non-medical approaches enough to improve mental health among the population of the highly urbanized Singapore? Let's find out!
Listen to the end to find out if Singapore receives 3 ticks - a perfect city mark. This means that Singapore should be an example to follow by other cities!
Taking part in the podcast like this one was a great experience. Thanks to endeavours like this one we can share the knowledge from the scientists and inform the public!
Here are some other blog posts related to Singapore:
A speech presented during the "Conscious Warsaw - Sensing our City" webinar organized by the Center for Conscious Design, which took place on October 22, 2020, in Polish (English subtitles available in this video!).
Dr. Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo presented a new concept of designing mentally healthy cities based on contact with salutogenic natural landscapes (Contemplative Landscapes) and introduced the scientific background and activities of her NGO.
The entire webinar is available on https://theccd.org/domain/conscious-warsaw/
The built environment and mental health of the residents within the city are extremely interconnected. Daily exposures are known to influence psychological processes, having both known and unknown consequences. The study of Gary W. Evans from 2003 points out that personal control, social support and restoration from stress and fatigue in the physical environment directly impacts mental health. He also points out the need for evidence-based studies and methods. “Mind Monitoring” is a method to consider in such studies, as this makes bringing out evidence easier.
Unfortunately, our knowledge of the relation between mind and physical environment, especially in developing countries, is very little. Technology to conduct cross-sectional scientific studies is one of the biggest impedances.
A lot of devices are making our day to day lives easier, productive and entertaining in innumerous ways. But these are the tools that have the potential to be used in mind monitoring. They make research on environmental impacts on minds more affordable.
EEG a Mind Monitoring method
EEG stands for electroencephalogram. It is a test to find out and monitor the electrical activity of the brain using various noninvasive electrodes placed across the scalp. EEG electrodes pick up the electrical activity in the user’s brain. And then the collected signals are amplified and digitized and sent to a computer or mobile device for storage and data processing. Recently, these tests have been made affordable with new designs and exploring ways to use smartphones.
Some recent EEG devices
NeuroSky launched quite a number of second-generation products, such as MindWave, MindWave Mobile, MindWave Mobile Plus and MindWave Mobile 2. Mindwave Mobile 2 is the most affordable brainwave reading EEG headset. These devices are used in games, education, wellness, research and development.
Emotiv products achieved better performance and wider scalp coverage by using a higher number of channels and wet electrodes. This caused Emotiv products to have a more complicated set-up and higher price tag. Some Emotiv products are Insight, EPOC X, MN8 etc. They can provide easy-to-understand feedback on the level of stress and distraction to improve workplace wellness, safety and productivity.
Muse is a meditation facilitating device that comes along with a mobile application. Muse 2, Muse S are available having a lot of features. Provides real-time feedback on user’s brain activity, heart rate, breathing and body movements
Some other devices, such as: MyndPlay MyndBand, Aurora Dreamband, FocusBand, Neeuro SenzeBand work with various mind monitoring activities. For example: empowering users to train their brains to improve attention, meditation skills, for better sleep, dream clarity etc.
MindWave Mobile 2
Still in production
349.00 (Ultracortex Mark IV)
399.00 (Electrode Cap)
The researchers and practitioners of developing countries like Bangladesh or Colombia are not much aware of these EEG solutions. Most of the time the price range would still be unaffordable. But the products provided by NeuroSky, interaXon and MyndPlay are comparatively less costly and can be affordable for the research and mental health practitioners in Bangladesh.
Summing up, affordable technologies for mind monitoring are now rising. And a displayable number of multidisciplinary collaborative research and experiments in this sector will increase their potential to a great extent!