In an increasing urbanised world, it is important to consider how we are designing our cities so that it fosters mental wellbeing for its inhabitants. It is well recognised that the presence of nature plays an important role in this; though the east and west each have a fundamentally different approach. There is a long term awareness of the relaxing qualities of nature in Eastern culture whereas in the West, we tend to look at the effects of nature in a more scientific way.
Dutch creatives Vincent and Bennie of Gewildgroei have been fascinated with this eastern phenomenon, known as 森林浴 or ‘Forest Bathing’, since they first came across it. Recently they travelled to Taipei as part of the World Design Capital program and developed a project for the Designers’ Gaze exhibition with this theme in mind.
In Holland, Vincent describes their Gewildgroei project as “exploring a new typology of urban nature.” They emphasise the importance of making space for nature to grow in a more organic, instead of prescriptive, way. In Taipei, once recovered from the overwhelming first impressions of the bustling city, they noticed that nature was allowed much more freedom than back home in Holland.
They noticed trees were being built around, instead of removed, and vegetation was thriving in the smallest urban crevices. As they spent their time looking up at these curiosities, others would notice, look up too, and smile. They realised that the concept of their original project was essentially in existence here; there was perhaps a role that design can play to simply make nature more visible.
They then came across the work of urban psychologist Robert Dongen, who studied the effect of nature on the brain. He discovered that “looking at a chair costs more energy than looking at a tree” and found that the mere presence of nature was enough to make a positive impact on the human psyche. From this study, they noted that the benefits of ‘forest bathing’ were not necessarily connected to scale. There were already large parks around the city, then smaller pocket parks, so they decided to implement the idea of pinpoint parks, or ‘1 person parks’. “Pinpoint parks are very small and site specific encounters with nature in the city”, explained Vincent. “Instead of focusing on the size of green spaces, we focus on the experience of nature in the city.”
They began by conducting workshops with people from the Taipei community, asking 2 questions: what was their 1st memory of nature, and what was their most memorable experience of nature? From these prompts, they designed interventions to help the public engage with the natural world present in Taipei.
One person recalled the seeds that they used to throw between friends when they were young. The aim was to get them stuck on each others clothes. In response, they created a installation at the entrance in the underground. Plants lined the path, so that commuters would brush past and take a piece of nature with them.
Another recalled perhaps the only snow recorded in Taipei in living memory. People collected the snow and placed it in the freezer in an attempt to preserve the experience. In ode to this memory, they placed bags of melting ice above a walkway in the heat of the central city. The big droplets of cold water that dropped on passer-bys served to preserve a natural experience that is no longer available.
Finally, in response to the reactions from locals as they initially explored the city, they encouraged the idea of ‘looking up’. By strategically placing mirrors in the ground, those walking past had a chance to notice the beauty in the coexistence of nature and the man-made.
It seems there is an increasing awareness of the importance of nature in modern cities. We have seen though recent projects such as MINI Living ‘Forests’ installation at London Design Week, and the rise of guerrilla planting that even though the world is urbanising, citizens still want to surround themselves with the beauty of nature.
With this in mind, Vincent and Bennie have embraced the WDC theme of ‘Adaptive City- Design In Motion‘. They explored the opportunities for design thinking to enrich the experience of the city and make them a more liveable place for everyone. It shows that small scale people-led interventions can be just as effective as large scale planning in engaging citizens with potential pleasures all around them.