A greener outlook

Surrounding yourself with nature and greenery may be a challenge in the UAE but the psychological effects can be hugely beneficial.

In the often-arid environment of the Emirates, surrounding yourself with nature and greenery can prove tricky. But the psychological effects can be hugely beneficial, explains Andrea Anastasiou

The world’s most desirable homes offer rooms with stunning views of nature – from living rooms overlooking relaxing seascapes to bedrooms looking over vibrant green mountains – that tap into our desire to be surrounded by beautiful scenery. And it seems that there is a psychological explanation for our penchant for a scenic vista: research demonstrates how aesthetically pleasing views – particularly of nature and water – are mentally and physically restorative.

Environmental psychologists have long studied the effects of nature and water on our health and well-being. Studies have shown, for example, that workers who sit near windows are happier, healthier and more tolerant, while those of us who pause to enjoy scenes of nature are able to more easily refocus our attention. According to Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist and the managing director of The LightHouse Arabia in Dubai, studies show that spending as little as 15 to 30 minutes in nature can increase positive emotions and the ability to reflect on a life problem. “This is best explained by nature’s effect on physiology – heart rates decrease and blood pressure goes down when people spend time looking at nature. When this happens, we are psychologically in a calmer state,” she explains.

One interesting study looked specifically at how water was relevant to psychologically desirable views. In Blue Space: The Importance of Water for Preference, Affect and Restorativeness of Natural and Built Scenes, the researcher Dr Mathew White and his co-authors found that both green and built-in spaces with water – such as fountains, streams and lakes – were preferable and more restorative than places without water.

White, a social psychologist at the University of Exeter in the UK, says that there are various potential theories behind our love for views of water – one being our individual learning histories. “When asked to list their favourite memories, adults often recall seaside holidays as a child, and people’s preferred beaches are often ones they knew as children. So if we had a good time there in the past, then maybe we carry these memories with us through life and have strong preferences later,” he explains.

There is also an evolutionary theory behind our desire for a view of water. White explains that in the past we spent a long time living on water margins, which provided a rich source of food. “There is evidence that human migration happened along rivers and the coast, again supporting the idea that our ancestors who were attracted to water may have been more likely to spread, survive and continue,” he says.

We don’t have to look far in the UAE to find residential developments that have been strategically constructed in spaces that overlook water – such as JBR and The Palm in Dubai and Al Raha Beach and Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi. Alternatively, where water does not exist, lakes and fountains have been created as part of the urban space, examples being the Burj Khalifa area of Downtown and Jumeirah Lakes Towers in Dubai. And while the UAE may lack greenery, developments such as Motor City in Dubai have been built with a strong emphasis on communal gardens and expansive green spaces.

In new cities, implementing strong public realms with green spaces is crucial to urban planning. Janus Rostock, the associate design director for Atkins Middle East, says that clients today are aware of the importance of having buildings that overlook open spaces. “There’s also a greater understanding now of how green open spaces can support what we call ‘wellness’ by encouraging participation in sports and other physical activities, leading to healthy and active lifestyles,” explains Rostock. “Looking over green open space puts a premium on properties, and this is something we’re acutely aware of and speak to clients about.”

Unsurprisingly, it’s been found that we are willing to pay more to buy a property that enjoys a good view of nature. According to White, some studies of house prices show that people are prepared to pay about 10 to 15 per cent more for properties with views of water. “Do people get sufficient benefit from these views? At the moment we don’t know, but we’re trying to explore it,” he says. “A crucial question is whether the ‘wow’ factor you get when you walk into a potential property will dissipate over time – in other words, will you soon take the view for granted?”

In a place like the UAE, the number of homes that overlook expansive greenery is limited. However, some urban dwellers are ensuring that they still get to enjoy the psychological benefits of views of nature by nurturing plants on their balconies. Smitha Lobo-Mascarenhas, a 39-year-old Indian homemaker living in Dubai, has an impressive balcony full of various plants at her apartment in Karama. Lobo-Mascarenhas explains that her current apartment was chosen as it has a north-facing balcony that offers an abundance of morning sunlight, which is essential for growing plants. “The only drawback was that it faces other buildings. Gazing at the walls would have given the feeling of being in a prison, so having greenery around with lots of flowers, vegetables and green plants was important to us,” she says.

As a gardening enthusiast, she agrees that views of greenery have a positive psychological effect on herself and her family. “Every morning as I open the curtains of the bedroom, the garden is the first thing I see, in contrast to the stark walls and buildings beyond. Looking at the greenery gives a sense of calmness,” she explains.

Laura Allais-Maré is a fellow balcony-garden enthusiast. The 51-year-old South African-Italian started the Facebook group Balcony and Urban Gardening in the UAE as a way of sharing her passion for “green” balconies. “I know that in a city, having something green and alive makes you feel much more connected to the elements around you,” she explains. “The wind, rain – or lack of it – the bugs – the good and the bad ones – the sun and the heat. For me, it’s exciting and challenging to learn how to interact with all this, both organically and ­sustainably.”

If your home isn’t blessed with a nice view, Afridi highly recommends that you follow the example of Allais-Maré and Lobo-Mascaren and surround yourself with nature as much as possible, to enjoy the same psychological effects. “Living in the desert, especially during the summer, can be very difficult psychologically for individuals and families,” she advises. “It can be depressing to be indoors and not amongst nature or the outdoors for months at a time. You can counter these effects by having houseplants in your home and making it as green as possible. If you have a balcony, create a balcony garden with plants that will survive the heat and add a water feature.”