What is “nature,” anyway?

Martha's Vineyard beach. Photo by Naomi Sachs

Martha's Vineyard coastline. Photo by Naomi Sachs

A colleague posed an interesting question recently, in relation to providing access to nature in the healthcare setting: If we are arguing for access to nature in hospitals and other places of healing, then we shouldn’t we define it? Yes!

So, what is “nature”? Here are some thoughts.
Note that since posting this two days ago, I’ve already changed my definition slightly. I’m sure it will continue to evolve. Skip to the bottom of the post to see my latest definition as well as reference to an excellent article that has made me re-think my original one.

Let’s start with some dictionary definitions.


Oxford English Dictionary:
– 1 the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations: “the breathtaking beauty of nature”
– the physical force regarded as causing and regulating these phenomena: “it is impossible to change the laws of nature” See also Mother Nature.

American Heritage Dictionary (dictionary.com)
1. the material world, especially as surrounding humankind and existing independently of human activities.
2. the natural  world as it exists without human beings or civilization.
3. the elements of the natural  world, as mountains, trees, animals, or rivers.

Natural is generally defined as “existing in or derived from nature; not made or caused by humankind.” (OED)

Naturalistic is usually defined as something that imitates nature: Plastic made to look like wood. A garden designed with soft, curving lines rather than hard, rectilinear ones (think Central Park and Piet Oudolf rather than Versailles and  Martha Schwartz).

In the past, and even in most dictionary definitions, nature is seen as separate from humans and everything made by them. More recent thinking, and I am in this camp, argues that we human beings are not – cannot be – separate from nature because we are living, breathing beings not all that far removed from our “natural” animal relatives. We are nature and nature is us.

So let’s agree that humans are a part of nature.
Then what of the things that we make (other than other humans)? What of concrete, and glass, and hybrid plants like tulips and roses, and cloned sheep? Which of those are nature, or natural, and which are…not? One could argue that since everything is made of various combinations of atoms and particles which all existed long before we came along and which will continue to exist (in theory) long after humans no longer walk the earth, then isn’t everything that comes from those things also “nature”? In theory, sure, but we have to draw the line somewhere.

A definition of nature based on general perceptions:

Perhaps the best way to define nature is to look at how most people define and experience it. After all, if we’re talking about access to nature in places of healing, then we want to appeal to most people, not to wacky theorists. Most people do not see or experience plastic, or cloned sheep, as natural. Most people, when they see (and touch, taste, smell, and hear) plants and water, feel like they are connecting with elements of nature. Most people, when they are in the middle of the WalMart parking lot, do not feel like they are in nature. Most people, when they are at the Grand Canyon, do feel like they are in nature. In addition, many people, when they’re in a large park or a botanical garden, still feel connected to nature, even though the space was designed by a human being.

A definition based on research of preferences:

Again, if we’re arguing for access to nature in an acute care general hospital, assuming that contact with nature reduces stress and enhances well-being, then we want a space where most people will say “ahhhhh, I am in nature” when they are there. There’s enough evidence from research that people respond positively to nature and natural elements – vegetation (trees, shrubs, flowers, grass); water; fresh air and sky; birds and other wildlife; earth; stone; wood – and that connection to nature facilitates mental and physical restoration. And that the more divorced we feel from nature, the more stressed we become and the harder it is for us to restore ourselves. In most cases with healthcare settings, the hospital is not plopped into a nature preserve, so our task is to integrate as many elements that people identify as “nature” in order to optimize outcomes (reduction of stress and improvement of health and well-being).

Stonecrop gardens, Cold Spring, NY. Photo by Naomi Sachs

Stonecrop gardens, Cold Spring, NY. Photo by Naomi Sachs

“Wild nature” and “Designed nature”

Let’s go back to Grand Canyon vs. Central Park for a minute. When I was going through my collection of images to pick which to use for this post, I kept seeing ones that spoke “nature” to me, but that were in fact spaces designed by people. So I would argue that if a place has enough natural elements, arranged in a naturalistic way, then one can still feel like one is “in nature.” This is all quite subjective, but there is some research on what elements, patterns, and archetypes are most shared across cultures and geographic regions. I feel like I’m in nature when I’m deep in Kew Gardens, even though it was designed and shaped by human beings and there are millions of people, and objects made by people, just outside the gates. Heck, the Grand Canyon is filled with all sorts of human interventions (roads, viewing platforms, etc.) that, for most people, don’t much detract from their experience of it as a place of wild nature.

So, what is my definition of “nature”? How about…

An environment, or elements in an environment, that would exist without human beings and human intervention, e.g., vegetation, animals and other living organisms, stone, wood, earth/soil, water, air, fire, changing seasons, etc. Basically, stuff that was here before us and that will probably be here after we’re gone (unless we wipe it out first…but that’s another topic). Although…I’m now re-thinking this definition. Perhaps it’s too narrow. See postscript, below.

And for the sake of design for health and healing, my definition broadens to a space containing enough natural elements to elicit a sense of connection to nature that in turn facilitates mental and physical restoration.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.


I just dug up this article, “Healthy nature healthy people: ‘contact with nature’ as an upstream health promotion intervention for populations,” which cites most of the authors (Kaplans, Wilson, Kellert, Ulrich, Hartig, Kuo, Frumkin) that I drew knowledge from for this post. And many more besides, some new to me. It’s an excellent article, approaching “access to nature” on a much larger scale, as a global public health issue in addition to healthcare facilities. So few articles actually define “nature,” so I was thrilled to see that the authors did:

For the purposes of this paper, nature is defined as an organic environment where the majority of ecosystem processes are present (e.g. birth, death, reproduction, relationships between species). This includes the spectrum of habitats from wilderness areas to farms and gardens. Nature also refers to any single element of the natural environment (such as plants, animals, soil, water or air), and includes domestic and companion animals as well as cultivated pot plants. Nature can also refer collectively to the geological, evolutionary, biophysical and biochemical processes that have occurred throughout time to create the Earth as it is today. Parks are public natural environments, spaces reserved for their natural or cultural qualities, usually owned, managed and administered by public institutions. Parks are utilized for a range of purposes, including for conservation, recreation and education. In urban settings, parks are seen to provide the most ready access to nature for many individuals. This paper focuses on the benefits of contact with nature in park environments for urban-dwelling individuals, and explores the potential of contact with nature for the promotion of health for whole populations.

Full citation:

Maller, Cecily, Mardie Townsend, Anita Pryor, Peter Brown and Lawrence St Leger (2006). “Healthy nature healthy people: ‘contact with nature’ as an upstream health promotion intervention for populations.” Health Promotion International, Vol. 21, No. 1, March, pp. 45-54.


Whilst urban-dwelling individuals who seek out parks and gardens appear to intuitively understand the personal health and well-being benefits arising from ‘contact with nature’, public health strategies are yet to maximize the untapped resource nature provides, including the benefits of nature contact as an upstream health promotion intervention for populations. This paper presents a summary of empirical, theoretical and anecdotal evidence drawn from a literature review of the human health benefits of contact with nature. Initial findings indicate that nature plays a vital role in human health and well-being, and that parks and nature reserves play a significant role by providing access to nature for individuals. Implications suggest contact with nature may provide an effective population-wide strategy in prevention of mental ill health, with potential application for sub-populations, communities and individuals at higher risk of ill health. Recommendations include further investigation of ‘contact with nature’ in population health, and examination of the benefits of nature-based interventions. To maximize use of ‘contact with nature’ in the health promotion of populations, collaborative strategies between researchers and primary health, social services, urban planning and environmental management sectors are required. This approach offers not only an augmentation of existing health promotion and prevention activities, but provides the basis for a socio-ecological approach to public health that incorporates environmental sustainability.

This book also looks interesting and could be good for those who want to delve further into the subject: The Ideal of Nature, published by The Hastings Center, http://www.thehastingscenter.org/Publications/Books/Detail.aspx?id=5437.