‘Virtual nature’ experiences in prisons reduce stress

Excerpted from At the U.

A new study from University of Utah researchers finds that exposure to nature imagery or nature sounds decreased physiological signs of stress in the incarcerated, and spurred their interest in learning more about the habitats they experienced.

The findings from the study, published in Ecopsychology, could be put to use to benefit the physical and mental health of the incarcerated, says Nalini Nadkarni of the School of Biological Sciences.

“Findings from this study also help us understand how providing nature or nature imagery might be beneficial for other nature-deprived populations,” she says.

For the new study, Nadkarni and her colleagues including Sara Yeo, associate professor in the College of Humanities and James Ruff, associate instructor in the School of Biological Sciences, met with 71 men in medium or minimum security blocks in the Salt Lake County Jail. After a survey about their opinions on science and nature, the participants viewed and listened to three-minute segments of video and audio of four different nature habitats: forests, mountains, oceans and streams. The researchers call these sessions “virtual nature experiences.”

The researchers monitored the participants’ stress level throughout. The participants reported feeling less stressed after the virtual nature experiences, and the physiological measurements backed that up. Nature exposure measurably decreased their stress.

At the end of the experiment, the researchers asked participants how interested they might be in taking a biology or ecology course to learn more about the habitats they’d seen and heard. Overall, they were more interested in learning about nature after the experience. Yeo, who studies science communication, says this result is encouraging, as people who are incarcerated not only have limited access to nature but may have had limited exposure to science before their incarceration.

“And so it’s really hopeful to think that one can see these changes even among groups that are not necessarily selecting science, or that we maybe don’t think of as having an affinity for science,” she says. “It’s still important for us to try to share experiences with science, even in places where we normally wouldn’t.”

Sara Yeo is a GCSC faculty affiliate.

How vegetation effects microclimates in urbanized Salt Lake Valley

A new study by Carolina Gómez-Navarro and GCSC affiliate faculty Diane Pataki, Eric Pardyjak, and Dave Bowling, looks at how trees and grass can help mitigate excessive heat in urban areas. Hard surfaces like roofs, buildings, and pavement absorb the sun’s heat and radiate it into the surroundings, creating a “heat island effect”. While trees cast cooling shade, the team found that a more effective cooling solution occurs with a mix of trees and turf grass. Read about the study in At The U.

GCSC Faculty Affiliates Honored for Contributions to Ecology

The Ecological Society of America has elected three of our affiliated faculty in recognition of their contributions to the science of ecology. To read more about the contributions of Fred Adler, Departments of Mathematics and Biology, Phyllis Coley, Department of Biology, and Bill Anderegg, Department of Biology, go to this UNews article,

Affiliates receive award for interdisciplinary research on sustainability of woodland health and human livelihoods

GCSC faculty affiliates from three colleges were successful in competing for an NSF award to research coupled natural-human systems. Researchers Brian Codding (PI), Phil Dennison (Co-PI, Geography), Shane Macfarlan (Anthropology), Simon Brewer (Geography) are from the College of Social and Behavioral Science. Bill Anderegg (Co-PI, Biology) is in the College of Science, and Court Strong (Co-PI, Atmospheric Science) is in the College of Mines and Earth Sciences.

In this interdisciplinary project, researchers will focus on the piñon-juniper woodlands of southern Utah where Navajo and Ute people rely on wood fuel, examining the combined effects of environmental variation and firewood harvesting on woodland ecosystems to determine the conditions that promote healthy forests capable of sustaining wood fuel use into the future.

While growing evidence suggests that forests are threatened by droughts, extreme temperatures, and overharvesting, scientists currently have difficulty predicting future forest conditions, and that restricts capabilities to anticipate the energy security of one-third of the Earth’s people who rely on wood as a primary fuel source. To overcome these limitations, this project will gather data about forest health, human harvesting practices, and climate and other environmental conditions. The investigators will use these data to examine the dynamics between people and their local environment and to develop a model that can forecast future variation in this coupled natural-human system. Project findings will provide more generalizable insights for assessing the sensitivity of small-scale socioecological systems to environmental transitions. This project will inform land management decisions aimed at improving the sustainability of woodland health and human livelihoods under variable environmental conditions. The project also will provide education and training opportunities in the conduct of interdisciplinary research for graduate and undergraduate students.

Forest fuels comprise about nine percent of the global primary energy budget, but data are limited regarding the coupled forest-fuelwood-climate nexus, particularly the sustainability of forests to provide firewood for subsistence populations in a changing environment. This project will be conducted by an interdisciplinary team of anthropologists, biologists, geographers, atmospheric scientists, and engineers who will gather empirical data about woodland biomass and harvesting demand across a variety of climatic conditions and land-management regimes. Data generated from quantitative ethnography, field ecology, remote sensing, and climatology will be used to create and validate a dynamic model capable of predicting future conditions of this system under altered climate and harvesting scenarios. Results will provide a general framework capable of predicting diverse coupled natural-human systems under varied environmental scenarios. This project is supported by the NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program.

The Right to Recreation: Spotlight on Jeff Rose

Jeff Rose, assistant professor (lecturer) in Parks, Recreation, and Tourism, is a GCSC faculty affiliate conducting research related to the theme justice, equity, and diversity. In this installment of our regular research spotlight series, we learn more about Jeff’s work exploring homelessness, public space, and the right to recreation.

Why Parks, Recreation, and Tourism? What interests you about the field?

Jeff Rose

Jeff Rose, Assistant Professor (Lecturer) in Parks, Recreation and Tourism

There are quite a few conservation and sustainability efforts that align closely with this field, from protected area management to social justice issues in who has access to services, resources, facilities, and so forth. As a geographer in training (and in heart), I’m fascinated with the political aspects of the ways in which people relate to space and place. I really see parks, recreation, and tourism as a setting for a number of social, political, and environmental processes and phenomena. Valuing these settings, behaviors, and ideas has tremendous economic effects, but valuing and seeking out leisure can also be seen as almost inherently anti-capitalist, and in some ways non-normative. But for many, participating in recreation or accessing public lands is an unrecognized privilege; one of my favorite colleagues – Sandy Negley – says that everybody has a right to recreation, which in some ways is a revolutionary idea.

Recreation is one of many pathways to health, both the health of humans and the health of the planet. It’s also worth noting that studying and participating in parks, recreation, and tourism is often just fun.

You stated that you are fascinated with the “political aspects of the ways in which people relate to space and place.” What are some of these political aspects?

In essence, our subjectivities – the ways in which we engage with race, class, and gender – matter. Those three categories of understanding and difference
are largely explored by critical theorists. However, I also think about less obvious categories of difference that have big implications; in particular, the ways in which we relate to nonhuman nature, and the ways in which we engage in political economies. In other words, do we romanticize and/or objectify nature, or do we understand it more relationally, as an extension of our existence and our cultures? On the political economy side, this refers to our engagements with capitalism as a dominant system in our lives. Thinking about these aspects geographically helps to consider the ways that we connect to, and make sense of, particular places, and how we individually and collectively produce different types of spaces. Thinking about space as being produced is helpful because it reminds us that spaces don’t just innocuously exist, but that they have lots of intentions behind them, whether we acknowledge it or not. Also, this gives us lots of agency, since spaces were produced, in particular historical contexts, they can also be changed. We have lots of agency in the way the world works. I often try to make sense of outdoor recreation spaces, but geographers engage in similar thinking consider urban spaces, global relations, networks of production, and many others.

Most of my research right now concerns people facing homelessness in public space; the folks who work, live, and play in our communities who do not have consistent access to shelter. This is a substantial issue in Salt Lake City right now, as it is for nearly every community in the US and around the world. I am also working with some wonderful graduate students on a bunch of other projects, from wilderness management to the urban-wildland interface to diversity in the National Parks.

Regarding your work with people facing homelessness, what are the research questions that you’re working with, and the methods you’re using?

I spent more than a year engaging ethnographically with a group of people facing homelessness along Salt Lake City’s urban-wildland interface. This meant that I used participant observation to try to understand their experiences, perspectives, and behaviors. I spent time sleeping, eating, socializing, commuting, and basically hanging out with these folks. I also interviewed them, did some mapping of their daily experiences, and took lots and lots of notes. My research questions were basically about how their lived experiences were shaped by their own perspectives of public and private space and of nature and society. Living, working, and playing outdoors as folks facing homelessness, they are forced to live in what is nominally “public nature.” But my research and engagement suggests that this space is a lot less public than one might think, and that their understandings of nature are a bit more nuanced than one may assume.

What I understand as nature – large tracts of unbuilt space – is usually discussed in terms of biological/ecological conservation or in terms of outdoor recreation. But nature takes on much more contested meanings when it is your forced everyday existence. Many of us get to engage with these spaces on our own terms, and so we often romanticize them. This isn’t to say that nature doesn’t exist nearly everywhere; in our urban homes, our commutes, and even indoors.

But there is something fundamentally different when one lives outdoors every day. Many of the folks I researched began to see nature as home, rather than differentiating the two concepts. Many folks reported a spiritual connection to the unbuilt spaces where they lived. At the same time, life outdoors can be quite harsh, and so many of the folks facing unsheltered homelessness were frustrated with nature, and saw it as a major source of difficulty in their lives.

improvised tarp shelterIn regards to homelessness, do you work with stakeholders outside of the U, and if so, how do you communicate and connect your research to them?

I’ve had some pretty cool opportunities to interact with people who are extremely engaged and dedicated to addressing homelessness in the Salt Lake Valley. I try to emphasize that folks who are facing homelessness are not abstractions or statistics, but community members and decision makers. They are taxpayers, parents, workers, and whole people. Many of them can be described as functional but fragile, and it’s part of our responsibility as fellow community members to support these folks as they work to improve their daily living conditions. The human health vulnerabilities associated with living in the outdoors are substantial, particularly in places like Salt Lake City, where temperatures, precipitation, and environmental conditions can be quite unforgiving. Often, conversations with local stakeholders and community members who are interested in addressing homelessness immediately get into the practicalities of the Road Home and some of the ongoing relocation decisions. I try to encourage stakeholders to work diligently for shelter options to be as accommodating as possible. Most of my work with folks facing unsheltered homelessness indicates that they really do want shelter – permanent shelter – but conditions at many of the existing facilities are not worth coming indoors.

Returning to your earlier comment about having the privilege to recreate, in a recent article you explored the relationship between white privilege and experiential education. In it, you state “experience means everybody comes out transformed – but transformed how, and to what end?” How has your experience of doing your work transformed you, and to what end?

We can’t help but be transformed by the experiences in our lives both positively and negatively. I think the way that I’ve been most transformed in my work is by the amazing, talented students and faculty I get to work with every day, who challenge me to think more clearly and more articulately, while producing pedagogy and research that encourages us to grapple with social and environmental justice issues. I’m really quite thankful that I’m surrounded by folks who help me to see injustices, and to walk toward these situations with my eyes as wide open as possible, ready to carefully engage. I constantly make mistakes, but my professional life has really been a great opportunity to make myself a better, more engaged person.

What inspired you to engage with the GCSC?

I’m quite impressed by the faculty and graduate students who are affiliated with the GCSC. The topics they’re studying; from water distribution in south Asia to biophysical transformations of the planet to transportation solutions across the Wasatch Front, are the kind of topics that interest me. These people inform my thinking and research, and maybe in very small ways, I hope that my interests and research might color their thinking as well. Basically, the GCSC faculty and graduate students are the people at the University of Utah that I want to hang with. I am firmly committed to the belief that the most difficult problems we face have to be addressed in an interdisciplinary manner. We need physicists to work with philosophers, psychologists engaging with biochemists, and so forth. Our siloed knowledge bases have produced substantial advances, but silos fall short when it comes to today’s complex socioecological challenges.

Transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary collaborations are earning some well-deserved positive press, but those endeavors are not without challenges. For those graduate students and faculty seeking interdisciplinary collaborations, what advice do you have?

One of the jobs of academics, students and faculty alike, is not only to do our research, teaching, and outreach, but to articulate the complexity of these issues in our classrooms, communities, and beyond. When we only hammer away at an issue from our disciplinary perspective, it becomes easy for folks who don’t share that disciplinary background to tune out the message. I try to think about any particular issue not from a disciplinary perspective, but from the natural sciences, social sciences, and the arts and humanities. While my training and preferences are for the social sciences, I understand that colleagues from other perspectives are vital for insight and background, and their perspectives are ultimately required if we’re going to address these complex, wicked issues. I try really hard not to be defensive about my perspective, but instead to appreciate the ways in which colleagues from elsewhere in the university bring diverse views. I always appreciate when students and faculty from other departments and colleges share their perspectives with me, and I love collaborating with these folks. I think academia, in general, can become much more relevant with more explicit interdisciplinary collaborations.