The Nightingale and his cage
The Nightingle and his cage

essay: Conor Riordan,
graduate of architecture at TU Leuven (MSc) and Queens University Belfast (Bsc)
photographs: Zhongjing Zhang,
urbanism student at Technische Universiteit Delft

reading time: around 15 min

We have built ourselves a cage. A cage so subtly woven from generational distraction that we fail to even realise the tradition of its existence.

1. Jim Robbins, Ecopsychology: How Immersion in Nature Benefits Your Health, Accessed:2020, available at: link

2. P. H. Kahn Jr., Children’s affiliations with nature: Structure, development, and the problem of environmental generational amnesia, in Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural and Evolutionary Investigations, P. H. Kahn Jr., S. R. Kellert, Eds., MIT Press, 2002

3. M. Soga, K. J. Gaston, Extinction of experience: The loss of human-nature interactions., Front. Ecol. Environ. 14, 94–101, 2016

This has been the century of urbanism with more that two thirds of humanity to be living in cities by 2050. 1 We have much to thank the grand experiment of the city for. Improvements in mental and physical health however would not be among the accolades of urban living. The concentration of habitation mainly to urban areas has seen modern living habits reduce the frequency of regular contact with our natural world. We live in a cage constructed from urban fabric. The cage is subtly constructed and we are all guilty of its creation, we see it in increased time spent on screens, the rise in indoor sedentary activities as part of everyday life. Even our hours spent outdoors reveal a paucity of meaningful green interaction. The deficit of the urban jungle has resulted in disconnection with the natural sphere. 2 A gilded cage, the bars of which have become harder and harder to see for spatial access to direct nature experiences, become progressively rarified to newer and newer generations. We have created a negative feedback loop, a path dependency. This ever narrowing spectrum of nature experiences has led to a cultural disconnect, an ever growing ‘environmental generational amnesia’. 3 The current insufficiency of purposeful connection to green space in modern architectural design and planning will not be enough to repair our broken relationship with the natural sphere. We have found ourselves living in a bizarre inversion of Aesop's fable ‘The Nightingale and his Cage’, the comforts and distraction of the cage of modern urban living have left us deaf to the benefits of meaningful connections to the external and natural spheres. How do we emancipate ourselves of the current harmful paradigm and embrace the abundant resources for both prophylaxis and therapy found through immersion in the natural landscape?

4. G.C.Daily, Nature’s Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems , Island Press, 1997

5. Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and Human Well-Being, World Resources Institute, 2005

6. D.S. Grigsby-Toussaint, K.N. Turi, M. Krupa, N.J. Williams, S.R. Pandi-Perumal, G. Jean-Louis, Sleep insufficiency and the natural environment: Results from the US Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey., Prev. Med. 78, 78–84, 2015

7. M.P. White, I. Alcock, J. Grellier, et al., Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing., Sci Rep 9, 7730. 2019, link

Human wellbeing is linked to meaningful connection to the natural spheres in a myriad of ways. 4 The utilisation of nature for benefit and the improvement of quality of life is often referred to as ‘ecosystem services’. They include water purification, provision of food, stabilization of climate, protection from flooding, and many others.5 For the most part the obvious utilization and development of these services do not require much physical proximity to our urban environments. The spatial and cultural disconnection to territories that encomapse 'ecosystem services’ has resulted in the majority of policy making and social development being along the more purely biophysical dimensions of the Earth’s life-support systems. We have developed a path dependency in how we exploit, interact and perceive nature's ability to sustain us. It would seem obvious to most people that spending time exposed to what we consider natural environments would be of great benefit to one's health. Little attention however has been paid to the relationship between ecosystem services and mental health. New emerging studies have begun to shine a light on the positive psychological impact that connection and proximity to green space can yield. Several of these studies attribute exposure to natural services and a decrease in both burden and risk factors in a majority of mental illnesses. These benefits stem from improved sleep 6 as well as reductions in the biomarkers of acute chronic stress, anxiety disorders, attention deficit disorder, and depression. The required prescription of natural immersion for these disorders could be as little as green exposure for only 2 hours a week. 7

If we are to consider the future of care along both prophylaxis and therapy we must escape our cages and reconnect with the not quite panacea that comes with meaningful natural immersion. With the possible benefits being so clear we must make every effort as designers and planners to break boundaries and foster this connection in our urban environments wherever possible. A path must be found to reclaim and reconnect the cultural consciousness to purposeful congress with the ecological landscape.

The fostering of meaningful re-connection through architectural methodologies however is not such an easy task. The paradigm of merely seeking connection with nature through proximity alone needs to change. Creators and facilitators of the built environment need to engage in more than ‘window dressing’ ecology. We fight against a bucolic interpretation and the commodification of landscape. The failed experiment of the suburbs clearly shows that mere proximity is not enough and often results in commodifying the rural and natural setting. It leads only to the destruction of any meaningful interaction with the rapidly shrinking green space.

8. E. Orban, R. Sutcliffe, N. Dragano, K.-H. Jöckel, S. Moebus, Residential surrounding greenness, self-rated health and interrelations with aspects of neighborhood environment and social relations., J. Urban Health 94, 158–169, 2017

9. L. O’Brien, A. Burls, M. Townsend, M. Ebden, Volunteering in nature as a way of enabling people to reintegrate into society., Perspect. Public Health 131, 71–81, 2011

8 and our sense of eudaemonia in life. 9 Reinforcing the meaning of life through the building block of natural territories and ecosystem services could create a positive feedback loop. Conscientiousness grounded in natural territory would lead to increased focus on ecological issues and the public will to address these problems. In the shadow of the oncoming global climate disaster our relationship and investment in natural processes are critical.

Given the emerging body of evidence for the benefits of nature contact across all modes of human existence; physically, mentally and spiritually, greater effort should be made to increase access to nature. The ongoing degradation of our proximity and access to true green spaces shows us that designers need to interrogate and reconnect us meaningfully with our ‘ecosystem services’. New modes of interpreting habitation in relation to ecology and territory are needed at all scales if we are to emancipate ourselves of the current harmful paradigm and embrace the abundant natural and sustainable resources available to us. We need to be free of our cage.

General references:

Bruno De Meulder, Jan Schreurs, Annabel Cock, Bruno Notteboom (1999), Patching up the Belgian Urban Landscape, OASE (52)

Jonas De Vos, Veronique Van Acker & Frank Witlox (2016), Urban sprawl: neighbourhood dissatisfaction and urban preferences. Some evidence from Flanders, Urban Geography

Planning Hilberseimer, Ludwig The New Regional Pattern: Industriesand Gardens, Workshops and Farms. Chicago (Ill.): Theobald, 1949.

Pope, Albert. Ladders. 2nd ed. Architecture at Rice 34. Houston:Rice School of Architecture, 2014. Hilberseimer, Ludwig, Richard Anderson, and Pier Vittorio Aureli. Metropolisarchi