Nature, even in the form of a small urban yard, provides a host of benefits to people. These benefits mostly arise from two things that plants do.
Plants clean the air.
All plants absorb carbon as they grow. This reduces the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and slows global warming. Global warming contributes to heat waves, floods, droughts, and powerful storms, all of which pose threats to people and property.
Plants also filter pollutants out of the air. Air pollution can cause minor symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, and headache, and also contributes to serious illnesses including pneumonia, heart disease, and lung cancer. Poor air quality not only triggers asthma attacks, but can cause asthma in people who didn’t previously suffer from it.
Plants help us think clearly.
The human brain evolved to look at natural scenes. Looking at nature is so mentally effortless that it not only gives us an opportunity to rest from more mentally difficult tasks – like driving, studying, or problem-solving – it actually restores our mental energy.
Mental energy is finite. When we run out of it, we have difficulty concentrating, remembering, making good decisions, and managing our emotions. Exposure to nature gives us more mental energy with which to perform these important tasks.
Studies show that in communities with nature, residents experience less crime and domestic violence, and have greater success tackling complex life problems. Children’s ADD symptoms are improved, and residents are more likely to walk around their neighborhood, increasing their exercise level and reducing the community’s incidence of obesity.
Isn’t turf grass nature too?
Turf grass is not found in nature. While it’s still a plant and filters air like every other plant, its small size makes it far less efficient at doing so than larger plants. Because it does not act like nature by moving, growing, and changing, it provides only a minimal boost to our reserves of mental energy.
What if I think natural yards are ugly?
It doesn’t matter. To paraphrase a famous astrophysicist, the great thing about nature is that it’s good for you whether or not you think it is. In some of the studies mentioned above, people were asked what factors were important to them in choosing a place to live. Almost no one – neither the people benefiting from the presence of nature nor those suffering from its absence – mentioned nearby nature as a feature that would influence their decision about a new home. Nature had an effect on them despite their lack of interest in it.