Landscaping that makes us happy?

Étang au miroir - Claude Lafond (JBM010836)
Landscaping that makes us happy?

In addition to beautifying our cities, green spaces are beneficial to our health and our psychological wellbeing. Scientific studies have shown that they can ease the mental fatigue induced by the stress of the urban environment. When in contact with nature, hospitalized patients will recover more quickly, and children suffering from attention disorders will see their academic performance improve. There will even be a drop in cases of domestic violence under this influence.

A groundbreaking project

Wild or well-ordered, nature can bring us calm and enhance our wellbeing. Intrigued by that hypothesis, Agnieszka Anna Olszewska, a doctoral candidate in landscape architecture and urban ecology at Portugal’s University of Porto, decided to identify the landscape elements likely to foster a state of calm and contemplativeness. Her goal? To provide green-space designers objective elements they can depend on to improve the urban landscape. With a professor of neuroscience she conducted a pilot project demonstrating that certain landscape elements can induce cerebral activity associated with meditation.

Focusing on the brain

Olszewska asked four experts to analyze 50 photos of green spaces taken in French and Portuguese urban parks. The specialists had to assess the landscaping arrangements based on their capacity to generate a state of calm and contemplation. The most successful in that respect presented huge spaces with a beautiful view, including great areas of open and naturally asymmetrical space. Another interesting characteristic: these layouts stimulated observers to contemplate the sky.


In the project’s second phase, Olszewska presented pictures of the 15 most successful layouts to nine participants (men and women from 25 to 35) who were undergoing an electroencephalogram. These “guinea pigs,” exposed to each picture for eight seconds, were asked to simply relax and concentrate on the landscape as though they were actually there. Result: the activity on their electroencephalogram was similar to that of people practicing meditation!

The other side of the coin

Next stage: repeat the experiment with a larger sample of participants and a control group presented with the less successful layouts, which should not induce the same state…

In pursuit of happiness

This type of research is highly innovative, since it’s not based on the subjective preferences of participants but rather on the psychological reaction of the brain. Bold and intriguing, this is part of a new field of study that seeks to determine the best ways of creating green spaces that will promote a deep sense of wellbeing in their users. In pursuit of landscapes that will make us happy…

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