Connecting UW Campus to Health and Wellbeing with a ‘Nature and Health Walk’

By Allie Long

Have you ever felt anxious, tired, or overwhelmed, and then noticed a release in tension once you’ve taken a break to spend some time outside? Research shows you’re not alone. “A mental health respite is what’s appealing to a lot of people about getting outside,” shared Kathleen Wolf, PhD, a researcher with the UW Nature and Health network. “ Just 20 minutes per day – or around 120 minutes per week – has been found to sustain the momentum of mental health benefits that come from being in nature.”

To further explore the connection between nature and well-being, roughly 25 students, researchers, UW staff and community members came together on May 4th, 2022 for an hour-long nature walk across the University of Washington Seattle campus. The first Nature and Health Walk was led by Dr. Wolf who is with the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, and was organized by Nature and Health and UW Sustainability.

As a social scientist, Dr. Wolf investigates people’s perceptions and behaviors with regard to urban landscapes. Starting her career as an urban forester in South Florida and a landscape architect in the Midwest, she has always been interested in the interactions between human and ecological systems. Her background and expertise wove principles of environmental psychology into each stop on the walk, interpreting human dimensions of open space, urban forestry and natural systems.

Stop 1: Drumheller Fountain

The walk began at Drumheller Fountain. Participants were asked to take in their surroundings and think broadly about what constitutes being in natural spaces. For some, simply taking a short break to sit in a garden is restorative. For others, it can take the form of participating in  stewardship activities to maintain accessible outdoor spaces for everyone to experience.

“We all enjoy a different range of outdoor experiences,” shared Dr. Wolf. “What I’ve learned is that nature experience is not unlike nutrition—we need quality nutrients every day; we also need contact with nature to sustain our wellbeing. This can and does look different for everyone, and that’s also okay. What’s important is exploring the extent that you can find nature in your own lifestyle, whether that’s having a plant in your office that you tend to or going out on off-the-grid hiking trips or anything in between.”

Stop 2: Medicinal Herb Garden

For the second stop on the walk, Dr. Wolf led the group over to the Medicinal Herb Garden, just southwest of the fountain. Founded in 1911, the two and a half acre garden is home to more than 1,000 species of plants used by contemporary medicine and in traditional Native American methods.

Before encouraging participants to explore the garden at their own pace, Dr. Wolf spoke about how nearby nature can be a remedy for mental fatigue. Even a small nature space can be stimulating enough to gently engage the brain’s attention and restore the ability to concentrate,  a process known as soft fascination.

Soft fascination is one of four major components of Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which suggests that mental fatigue and concentration can be improved by spending time in or around nature. When paired with an opportunity to “be away” from everyday stressors, the “extent” to which you can feel immersed in the environment, and the “compatibility” of the respective exposure or place in a way that you appreciate, soft fascination is central to outdoor experiences that restore the brain’s attention capacity. And one can find this respite just outside the door. The nature break doesn’t have to involve a long trip or large green space.

Having an intrinsically peaceful atmosphere, the Medicinal Herb Garden is also the fifth stop on the UW’s Indigenous Walking Tour, originally created by UW student Owen L. Oliver (Quinault / Isleta Pueblo) in 2021. In the section titled “Rest and Relaxation,” Oliver writes: “While the connection to the shoreline seems to be more of an intimate get-away, the medicinal garden is just a stone’s throw away from the center of campus, making it an accessible spot to relax and take time for oneself. An oasis amidst textbooks and academic readings, the garden creates a tranquil atmosphere for all students, staff, and faculty.”

Stop 3: Heron Haven

The final stop of the tour was Heron Haven, a small forested area. Named for the great-blue herons that nest in big leaf maple trees on this site, these birds can be seen in the Spring as they fly over Rainier Vista with sticks and other nest materials as they prepare to rear their young. A rookery (or a colony of breeding birds) is rare in urbanized places. The UW student group Society for Ecological Restoration took on management and restoration in 2019,removing vast swaths of invasive English ivy and replanting with native Washington species.

The UW’s Restoration Ecology Network is just one of many local organizations that help to repair ecosystems and restore biodiversity through volunteering and stewardship. The inclusion of indigenous and traditional knowledge systems can and should be further incorporated into restoration efforts to promote landscape resiliency.

As the group listened while in the dense shade of the trees, Dr. Wolf spoke of the Japanese practice of forest therapy and bathing, known as shinrin-yoku. This is a form of ecotherapy that involves being in nature, being attentive to and focused on one’ surroundings,  and connecting through sensory experiences– sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. One walk participant was a forest therapy guide, certified by the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides program.

By slowing down and encountering our natural surroundings with our senses, we can engage with intention and mindfulness in the natural world. Any opportunity to pause is an important facet of connecting human wellbeing and nature experience, especially as we recover from any number of life’s stressors.

“We see and know firsthand about the incredible mental health challenges facing our society in a post-COVID world – especially for university students,” explained Dr. Wolf at the end of the tour. “Nature for mental health is real and should be immediately available to all of  us. Equity is important; everyone should have access and the ability to engage with nature.”

If you’re interested in getting involved with organizations on UW’s campus connected to this walk, visit the sites below: