The Powerful Link Between Conserving Land and Preserving Human Health

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of ten books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," "The Nature Principle," and "Vitamin N." His newest book is "Our Wild Calling: How Connecting to Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.

An essay by Howard Frumkin and Richard Louv
for the Land Trust Alliance Special Anniversary Report.

Howard Frumkin, M.D., Dr.P.H., is Director of the National Center for Environmental Health /Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Richard Louv is the author of ” Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” and founding chairman of the Children & Nature Network.

People are drawn to gardens, forests, and other natural spots for recreation and for vacations. Homes near parks typically gain in value. The designers and operators of hotels, spas, and golf courses know that beautiful grounds attract customers. In the words of University of Michigan psychologist Rachel Kaplan, ” Nature matters to people. Big trees and small trees, glistening water, chirping birds, budding bushes, colorful flowers—these are important ingredients in a good life.” (Kaplan, 1983, p 155)

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Evidence suggests that children and adults benefit so much from contact with nature that land conservation can now be viewed as a public health strategy.

This intuition is not new. Henry David Thoreau wrote of the ” tonic of wilderness.” A century ago, John Muir observed that ” Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” (Fox, 1981, p 116)

A theoretical basis for the notion that nature contact is good for health has been expanding. In 1984, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson introduced the concept of biophilia, ” the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.” (Wilson, 1993, p 31). Wilson pointed to the millennia of human and prehuman history, all embedded in natural settings, and suggested that we still carry affinities and preferences from that past. Building on this theory, others have suggested an affinity for nature that goes beyond living things to include streams, ocean waves, and wind (Heerwagen and Orians, 1993).

More recently, environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan have demonstrated that contact with nature restores attention, and promotes recovery from mental fatigue and the restoration of mental focus (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Kaplan, 1995). They attribute these beneficial qualities to the sense of fascination, of being immersed ” in a whole other world,” and to other influences of the natural world.

From theory to evidence

In addition to intuition and theory, we now have evidence. And increasingly the evidence suggests that people benefit so much from contact with nature that land conservation can now be viewed as a public health strategy. What does the evidence show?

Nature contact yields surprisingly broad benefits. This contact may occur on a very small scale—plants in the workplace or trees outside the apartment building—or it may occur on a larger scale—a nearby park, a riparian corridor in a city, or a wilderness area.

Some of the most recent studies and reports pertain to children at play. Playtime—especially unstructured, imaginative, exploratory play—is increasingly recognized as an essential component of wholesome child development (Burdette and Whitaker, 2005; Ginsburg et al., 2007). Play in natural settings seems to offer special benefits. For one, children are more physically active when they are outside—a boon at a time of sedentary lifestyles and epidemic overweight (Klesges et al., 1990; Baranowski et al., 1993; Sallis et al., 1993). And studies at the University of Illinois show that children with Attention-Deficit Disorder have fewer symptoms, and enhanced ability to focus, after outdoor activities such as camping and fishing — when compared to indoor activities such as doing homework and playing video games (Faber Taylor et al., 2001; Kuo and Faber Taylor, 2004). Anthropologists, psychologists, and others have described the special role of nature in children’s developing imagination and sense of place (Manuel 2003; Louv 2005).

Adults, too, seem to benefit from ” recess” in natural settings. Researchers in England (Pretty et al., 2005) and Sweden (Bodin and Hartig, 2003) have found that joggers who exercise in a natural green setting with trees, foliage, and landscape views, feel more restored, and less anxious, angry, and depressed than people who burn the same amount of calories in gyms or other built settings. Research is continuing into what is called ” green exercise.”

Fascinating evidence also comes from studies of medical treatment. An often-quoted 1984 study took advantage of an inadvertent architectural experiment. On the surgical floors of a 200-bed suburban Pennsylvania hospital, some rooms faced a stand of deciduous trees, while others faced a brown brick wall, and patients were essentially randomly assigned to one or the other kind of room after their surgery. Patients in rooms with tree views had shorter hospitalizations (on average, by almost one full day), less need for pain medications, and fewer negative comments in the nurses’ notes, compared to patients with brick views (Ulrich, 1984). In another study, patients undergoing bronchoscopy (a procedure that involves inserting a fiber-optic tube into the lungs) were randomly assigned to receive either sedation, or sedation plus nature contact—in this case a mural of a mountain stream in a spring meadow, and a continuous tape of complementary nature sounds (e.g., water in a stream or birds chirping). The patients with nature contact had substantially better pain control (Diette et al., 2003).

In fact, the idea of ” healing gardens” in hospitals, which dates back many centuries, may reflect longstanding knowledge that contact with nature is therapeutic, not only for patients but also for family, friends, and health professionals (Marcus and Barnes, 1999; Söderback et al., 2004). Horticultural therapy offers patients the chance to work with plants (Pastor and Straus, 1997; Haller and Kramer, 2007), and research is beginning to show benefits for heart disease patients (Wichrowski et al., 2005), dementia patients (Gigliotti et al. 2004), and others.

Another line of evidence comes from wilderness experiences—from organized programs such as the National Outdoor Leadership School and Outward Bound, and from less formal hiking and camping trips. Sometimes these are used therapeutically for psychological disorders (Eikenaes et al., 2006; Bettman, 2007), developmental and cognitive disabilities (Berger, 2006), cancer (Epstein 2004), and other conditions (Easley et al., 1990). But healthy people seem to benefit as well. For example, inner-city children show increases in self-esteem and well-being after spending the summer in rural camps (Readdick and Schaller, 2005). Adults who participate in wilderness excursions describe ” an increased sense of aliveness, well-being, and energy,” and note that the experience helps them make healthier lifestyle choices afterwards (Greenway, 1995).

There is still much we need to learn, such as what kinds of nature contact are most beneficial to health, how much contact is needed and how to measure that, and what groups of people benefit most. But we know enough to act.

Nature contact yields surprisingly broad benefits. This contact may occur on a very small scale—plants in the workplace (Heerwagen et al., 1995) or trees outside the apartment building—or it may occur on a larger scale—a nearby park, a riparian corridor in a city, or a wilderness area. In a remarkable body of research in inner-city housing projects in Chicago, investigators found that the presence of trees outside apartment buildings predicted less procrastination, better coping skills, and less severe assessment of their problems among women (Kuo, 2001), greater self-discipline among girls (Taylor et al., 2002), crime (Kuo and Sullivan, 2001a), and less violence and better social relationships (Kuo and Sullivan, 2001b). In two recent nationwide surveys in Holland, people who lived within one to three kilometers of green space reported significantly better health than those without such access, after researchers controlled for socioeconomic status, age, and other factors (de Vries et al., 2003; Maas et al., 2006). Overall, contact with nature seems an important component of a healthy, wholesome life.

New strategies for promoting public health

For these reasons, in the same way that protecting water and protecting air are strategies for promoting public health, protecting natural landscapes can be seen as a powerful form of preventive medicine. Of course, there is still much we need to learn, such as what kinds of nature contact are most beneficial to health, how much contact is needed and how to measure that, and what groups of people benefit most (Frumkin, 2003).

But we know enough to act. We need to promote land conservation as a way to promote public health, both for people today and for future generations. In an increasingly urbanized society, we need to envision, design, and create ” green cities,” where urban dwellers have nearby access to parks and green spaces (Beatley, 1999; van den Berg et al., 2007).

We need to promote dialogue among people from different ethnic cultures, as well as those individuals who work separately and speak different professional languages, such as pediatricians and landscape architects; public health professionals and park and recreation officials; bike and pedestrian advocates; and arborists, hunters, anglers, residential developers and environmentalists. We need imaginative social policy, such as the initiative recently announced by New Mexico’s Parks Division and Public Education Department that will bring most of the state’s fifth-graders to a state or national park or wilderness area during the 2007-08 school year.

In advancing all these efforts, we need to be especially mindful of the neediest among us, those who may have the least access to natural settings, and who may need nature the most.

More than anything, we need a vision of healthy, wholesome places, a vision that extends from densely settled cities to remote rural spreads, from the present to the future, from the most fortunate among us to the least fortunate, from the youngest child to the oldest adult. Conservation of land is central to this vision. Such places will promote our health, enhance our well-being, nourish our spirits, and steward the beauty and resources of the natural world.


About the Land Trust Alliance
The Land Trust Alliance leads and serves a national network of community-based, nonprofit land conservation organizations working to protect land for present and future generations by accelerating the pace, improving the quality and ensuring the permanence of conserved land across America through advocacy, education and training, communications, and legal defense programs. This essay first appeared in 2007 Land Trust Alliance Special Anniversary Report.

Note: Since this essay was published, Howard Frumkin has become Dean of the School of Public Health, Professor, Env. and Occ. Health Sciences. He has also co-authored the newly published Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Health, Well-being, and Sustainability (2011). In addition to Last Child in the Woods (2005), Richard Louv has written The Nature Principle (2011).

More commentary on health and nature.


  1. Just found your site. I feel at the same time both sadness and hope, sadness because so much green space is being destroyed and replaced with plastic.

    Hopeful because there are people like you who help spread the word, words that stir up hope!



  2. I always thoroughly enjoy reading your posts, full of insight and wisdom, both scientific & philosophic. I am currently reading an advanced readers copy of “Hope Beneath Our Feet: Restoring Our Place in the Natural World”, due out in September. The book is a compilation of answers to one profound question, “In a time of environmental crisis, how can we live right now?”, given in uniquely individual responses by a vast array of authors. Have you heard anything about this book, and will I find you within it’s pages? You seem a natural fit for the subject matter, and I often think of your words while reading it.

  3. I am pleased to find your site. I pray that it is not too late for the children to learn to be with nature. Thank you for your work.

  4. When my oldest son was diagnosed with cancer in October of 2009 I felt we could re-connect & spend time on the A.T. We traveled there, (east Tn. Roan Mtn.) in April of 2010 & had the best time of our lives! The sheer majesty & the grandeur was overwhelming. That hike was a healing time for my son & he still is improving with his health. We love the woods whether its east Tn. or the Rockies people did to get outdoors & enjoy God’s green earth. Thank you, Larry Pylant

  5. So well put! And with citations and everything, what a treat. You have both done so much and are an inspiration. I have shared on the Therapeutic Landscapes Network page, as I do often with your work. Fond best, Naomi Sachs, TLN Founder & Director.

  6. I loved your article and was just about to post it to my blog when I came across the penultimate paragraph. I am quite taken aback by the herding of “people of color” into your “neediest” classification. What a thoughtless and insulting generalization. Funny how “intelligent” people can be so ignorant about these critical things that really do take away your own credibility.

    • Richard Louv

      You’re right. I’ve made the edit.

  7. This is a very good tip especially to those new to
    the blogosphere. Simple but very accurate info… Many thanks
    for sharing this one. A must read post!

  8. I loved the post. This is a great article that can grow the intention of not to cut down trees or to destroy the green space in the mind of people. This is also inspirational to the children as well.

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