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How can VR improve mental health

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.

 

by Springer

Policy Briefs – Urban Health and Wellbeing Programme by Springer

In our most recent contribution to the Volume Two of the book series Urban Health and Wellbeing Systems Approaches, published by Springer and Zhejian University, we discuss the preliminary findings of our research project currently conducted in low-income communities in Medellin Colombia for our program Planting Seeds of Empowerment: Mental Health and Wellbeing of the Communities.

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.

Contents:

  1. COVID-19, Cities and Health: A View from New York  (Jo Ivey Boufford and Anthony Shih)
  2. 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)
  3. Neuroscience-Based Urban Design for Mentally Healthy Cities (Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo)
  4. The Role of Money for a Healthy Economy (Felix Fuders)
  5. Developing Health-Promoting Schools: An Initiative in Government Schools of Indore City, India (Alsa Bakhtawar)
  6. 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)
  7. COVID-19 Shows Us the Need to Plan Urban Green Spaces More Systemically for Urban Health and Wellbeing (Jieling Liu)
  8. 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)
  9. Planning Models for Small Towns in Tanzania (Dawah Lulu Magembe-Mushi and Ally Namangaya)
  10. Coping with Extreme Circumstances Through Community-Led Local Nature Interventions: A Science-Based Policy Analysis (Diana Benjumea and Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo)

Hardcopy of the book already available at:
https://www.springer.com/gp/book/

Access to the full book in pdf - here.

URD

Where Government Listens to Scientists: Urban Sustainability R&D Congress, Singapore

Singapore is one of the most prominent examples of Urban Sustainability through new technologies, research and development. It is also one of the few countries where the government is actively supporting science and innovation in order to inform the practice of urban design and solve urban living issues. The Urban Sustainability R&D Congress is organized since 2011, biannually, and invites all R&D projects pursued by Government agencies, collaborating with local and international research institutions.

One of the keynote speakers, Dr Elsa Arcaute from UCL, a researcher of Cities as Complex Systems, when asked by a panel moderator, Dr Cheong Koon Hean  (CEO of Housing & Development Board) what advice does she have for Singapore, she answered to just continue what Singapore was already doing. She mentioned that she as a researcher is used to “begging” urban decision-makers to look at the results of her work. In Singapore, authorities are not only interested to hear researchers out but also keen to fund the applicable research.

Congress is a national platform for government agencies, research community and industries to come together to discuss R&D responses for urban solutions and sustainability. The exhibition is also a showcase of the most interesting solutions and research in progress. Everything is presented with typical to Singapore care to impress all the visitors.

Singapore has been striving to balance economic growth with a high quality of life and care for the environment. As a result, it has to deal with many challenges, including the growing burden of mental health disorders and the aging population. These challenges were recognized and addressed at the Congress through a “Greater Sustainability Track”,  which shared the benefits of adopting sustainable and biophilic design ideas, provide behavioural and technological insights to aid the creation of a high-quality living environment. On this track the preliminary study of Dr Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo, President of NeuroLandscape was presented, you can watch her speech on our youtube channel!

Photos: 1. Punggol Digital District https://www.jtc.gov.sg/industrial-land-and-space/Pages/punggol-digital-district.aspx , 2.& 3. A.O.G

expanding brain

Follow the awakening in urban green spaces for health!

Our newest publication  XSection Journal features the process of evolution in perception of urban green spaces in terms of the health benefits they can deliver, through a popular “expanding brain meme.

Check out this short article and how to interpret the image here:

https://www.xsectionjournal.com/edition-8/2018/11/22/generations-of-urban-green-for-health-dr-agnieszka-olszewska-guizzo

brain

Scenic vs urban landscapes

A lot of studies have been performed comparing the reaction to  urban vs scenic, or natural landscapes in the lab.  This is one of them and we decided to feature it because it is performed with the most advanced method of brain scanning that we know thus far , fMRI.

From the figure we can see with the naked eye a difference between the pattern of activity when exposed to scenic (A) and urban (B) pictures.

The paper did not provide the stimuli photographs, which would be very important to see… Are they contemplative landscapes? Are they possible to design and implement in our cities? …

Interestingly enough, this study acknowledges that the benefits from inducing this particular brain activity come from just passive observation of images, which are far from the real landscape immersion.

Certain benefits may be derived from exposure to virtual versions of the natural environment, too. For example, people who were shown pictures of scenic, natural environments had increased brain activity in the region associated with recalling happy memories, compared to people that were shown pictures of urban landscapes.

Source: Kim, G. W., Jeong, G. W., Kim, T. H., Baek, H. S., Oh, S. K., Kang, H. K., … & Song, J. K. (2010). Functional neuroanatomy associated with natural and urban scenic views in the human brain: 3.0 T functional MR imaging. Korean Journal of Radiology11(5), 507-513.

Feel Free Garden 3

Gardens for Mental Health – Lessons from Chelsea Flower Show 2018 (PART_1)

Design Well, Live Healthy

Being around trees, shrubs and other plants improves people’s mental health and give us more positive outlook onto our lives. Spending time outside every day, decreases the risk of being depressed or stressed, and thus burden on our mental health is greatly reduced. The power of plants for our physical and mental wellbeing is currently one of main topic in social media and many events related to the built environment industry which also affects current trends in landscape architecture and garden design.

With health and wellbeing now so high profile, it looks like there has never been a better time to concentrate on the role gardens should play in promoting it. One of the best example is the 2018 RHS Chelsea Flower Show, the world’s most famous  gardens show, leading celebration of horticultural excellence and innovation, where great potential of plants to enhance mood and aid recovery was a main theme this year.

One of the main gardens RHS Feel Good Garden was designed as contemporary, therapeutic space, where people can relax, forget about daily, stressful life and benefit by beauty of surrounding green space. The designer presents here very elegant balance of beautiful, restrained planting with interesting, modern stonework which puts space users at complete ease. Relaxing oasis with a sense of tranquility is what I thought and felt when entered Feel Good Garden in a sunny May afternoon.

The richness of plants, its colours, shapes favors collecting positive energy and facing our life with more optimism and power. There is no straight lines and geometry what can make people feel more stressed and forced through the garden. As more wild-looking green space is as better for mental health, that is why planting here has more organic and natural form. A meandering path built with different materials should encourage us to stop focusing on the mind and focus on where we are going. Visitors feel free and welcome to walking around, calmly, at their own pace. Additional points appearing along the way inspire to linger and admire each detail of this lovely space.

At any time we can rest by having a sit on one of stone benches in arch and oval shapes and through specially created gaps in planting observe other parts of the garden and its users. Designer gave a great importance to herbs stimulating our senses as well as created the opportunity to listen to the soothing sound of ornamental grasses. Iris ‘Black Tie Affair’ with its very deep purple, almost black flowers attracts a great attention, forces you to stop, look and reflect.

Design also includes trees such as very tall Cercis siliquastrum and Gleditsia triacanthos which can be helpful for people who have problems with anxiety, depression, lack of self-confidence or just too much stress. They tend to seek for security under a “roof” of the tree canopy – that kind of security that brings the possibility to observe the rest of garden at the same time, without blocking the views. The layout of the garden encourage users to interact and engage with the plants and other people in a perfect way.

Noteworthy, I find it a wonderful idea to relocate this garden after the show, to the Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust with the aim of providing a place where patients as well as staff can garden, relax and socialize while being close to nature!
Gardening and spending active time in nature will definitely give them sense of purpose but also feeling of responsibility and achievement.

Having something to care for, such as plants, gives you a sense of purpose, a feeling that’s so important for those struggling with mental health issues, says the designer – Matt Keightley