Society today is facing increasing occurrences of various forms of poor health-related issues due to modern lifestyles. Contributing factors include an increasingly sedentary population and increasing levels of psychological stress related to urban living and contemporary work practices. Efforts to promote public health and well-being have become an important agenda in Malaysia. Green settings have been identified as places accessible to everyone in the community without any formal, financial or symbolic restrictions.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in December 2019, there have been more than 4.69 million deaths of COVID-19 worldwide. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), about 228 million infected cases were reported, with 197 million patients recovered. Given the worldwide health emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, citizens’ behaviour and perceptions of green spaces in Malaysia may have to adapt to the new needs primarily to cater to physical distancing.
Human Preferences towards Nature
A significant body of knowledge exists on the relationship between nature and human health. Studies have suggested that the natural environment supports people’s health and well-being, and various human needs influence people’s environmental preferences.
Stress is a significant contributor to ill health. Long-term stress left unresolved can lead to immune system issues and illness. The experience of nature is one antidote to stress, and the body’s positive response is remarkably fast, occurring within minutes. Studies by environmental psychologists show that visual exposure to nature, in the form of trees, grass and flowers, can effectively reduce stress, mainly if initial stress levels are high.
According to Attention Restoration Theory, experiences of nearby nature contribute to better mental health and improve one’s capacity to be productive. Modern life often demands sustained focus on projects, and this effort can lead to cognitive overload, bringing on irritability and an inability to function effectively, often with physical symptoms. Views or brief experiences of nearby nature help restore the mind from mental fatigue, as natural settings provide respite from the highly focused attention needed for most school or work tasks. This approach may contribute to higher productivity in the workplace, as research shows that office workers with a view of nature are better able to attend to tasks, report fewer illnesses and have higher job satisfaction. Increased time of nature experience (up to 1.5 hours) increases the therapeutic effect.
Nature settings offer sensory inputs that are mentally stimulating and can foster creativity. In a study of creative professionals, nature experiences enhanced creativity by evoking new ways of thinking, promoting curiosity and encouraging more flexible thinking. A nature recharge may support creativity, as the restored mind is better at analysing and developing ideas.
Views of green space from homes are linked to greater perceptions of well-being and neighbourhood satisfaction. Public housing residents reported feeling safer if their development had well-maintained landscaping, including trees and grass. Greener public housing neighbourhoods tend to be safer, with fewer incivilities and reported crimes. Active involvement in community greening and nature restoration projects produces social benefits, including strengthening intergenerational ties and organisational empowerment.
The roles of Public Green Spaces
Public green spaces are emerging as important public health solutions in urban communities. Nearly 40 years of research evidence confirms that nearby nature, including parks, gardens, urban forests and green spaces, support human health and wellness. Green infrastructure systems are practical integrations of built and ecological systems that incorporate natural and constructed green spaces to replace or augment traditional grey infrastructure.
Parks and green infrastructure can be co-designed for co-benefits. Parks can serve their primary goals to offer recreation and aesthetic amenities while also containing spaces that mitigate stormwater or improve air quality. Green infrastructure can achieve essential utility functions in the community but may also be designed to create environments that provide nearby nature experiences and support health.
A study that compared meditative and athletic walking in a forest and indoor settings showed that meditative walking generated more positive psychological effects than athletic walking in both environments. Other investigators have found evidence of lower frustration and increased brain activity resembling meditation when moved in green space versus in retail and commercial areas with no trees.
Based on Western literature and a survey carried out among Malaysians on the use of public parks post-pandemic, a list of recommendations concerning the future design of parks and urban green spaces is proposed, as explained below.
The top suggestion was to include new elements in the landscape, such as temporary hand washing stations which can become a public culture. Such a facility in green spaces could increase comfort and usage among green space users. As the saying goes, size does matter. Besides having practical facilities, bigger green spaces and large public gathering areas were identified as solutions for post-pandemic urban green space design.
Multipurpose and flexible spaces in the park may serve various purposes for different demographics and are particularly important for socially vulnerable residents. Dedicated park-access time for different age groups or activities could help maintain social distancing and facilitate access for more vulnerable groups. Public spaces are often the only recreational outdoor spaces for low-income residents and can provide relief from cramped living conditions.
In addition, urban planning and design should consider a diverse mix, including large parks, smaller pocket parks, and gardens. Community gardens also provide an alternative to public parks and may develop rules on safe distancing. Malaysians have indicated that they visited community gardens more frequently during the pandemic than before the lockdown.
A shorter distance to travel to urban green spaces should be considered. From the European perspective, they are willing to go within or beyond the city to reach urban green spaces. Before the pandemic, Malaysians were ready to drive to urban green areas beyond 1.5 kilometres. However, during the pandemic, they preferred green spaces within a walking distance (less than 500 metres).
Other than the size, types and distance of the green spaces, future park designs may consider implementing wider pedestrian walkways and longer routes for bicycle lanes to encourage safe and healthy use of the green spaces.
Urban green spaces will remain valued for health, socialization, community building, and identity formation in a post-pandemic world. Using green spaces has drastically changed the pattern and preferences among users. Improvements in terms of the facilities and accessibility to accommodate social distancing can be seen as an essential aspect among designers and local authorities.
by Prof. Madya Dr. Mohamad Fakri Zaky Bin Ja'afar
by En. Azari Bin Mat Yasir
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