Light and nature
Top Story

Light and nature – a valuable human benefit

The Sun of Opportunity is rising.

The sun is rising– I see a ray of hope in lighting design with this new opportunity. As lighting designers, we are in a unique position to lead, lend credibility and provide research in identifying these health benefits. Since the 1980’s, a small movement has begun to study human health and our needs in relation to nature – what is now termed "biophilia". Science is slowly beginning to accept this fact.

This article intends to provide in- sight into this biophilic realm and into the question of why this could be important. These applications are not specific only to my discipline, but to all. Everyone can gain from this understanding. It does not matter whether one works in an interior environment or exterior one. What matters is the concept of how lighting design impacts one’s state of mind through these experiential settings.

Nature provides us with grand moments to experience and learn from. Our sense of vision is a true blessing, and it allows us to understand the subtleties of light in these natural settings. There is no better teacher than the sun and nature. Where else can we truly gain this insight? Not only do we see, but we experience it. That’s the great gift we have been given in life – being able to understand emotion. Feelings are remembered and it is in this context that we can take advantage. Through providing these memorable experiences, we obtain relevance, justification and value in our work.

Light is a powerful medium that we are all drawn to. It provides warmth, comfort, safety and energy – all natural, positive effects. Our relevance comes in how and why we illuminate a space, and it is here that we can shine.

Lighting for therapeutic support

Unfortunately, the scientific community has yet to compile overwhelming research on the therapeutic aspects of light and nature. As stated above, this is an exciting opportunity for us all. I see wonderful opportunities for hospitals, wellness centers, work environments, public gardens, private spaces and the like, because we all need relief and restoration from the daily barrage of stress. And this is where our skills and competences are called for to provide conditions that allow for this additional comfort and healing.

If we consider night and our night- time environments, these can include beneficial lighting applications that can counter these opposite states of being. For example, imagine yourself in the position of being a hospital staff member and experiencing pain, sickness and death – this takes a huge toll on one’s attitude, mental health, and constitution. Does it not make sense to take temporary moments to walk into more comforting settings that provided peace, comfort and calm. Granted, not everyone works in an environment like this. But, most of us do experience daily stress in the form of meetings, deadlines, customers, and being subjected to those issues that are mentally and physically challenging on the body.

From a human-oriented lighting perspective, approximately 90 percent of our time is spent indoors. 87 percent of our sensory information is provided from vision. 50 percent of the human brain is used for vision. These statistics show that we live and perform by what we see. If that is so, does it not make sense that this visual stimulation impacts our health? Lighting affects us in two ways: visually (visual performance and visual experience), and non- visually (endocrine system and circadian rhythm).

Several health concerns have been associated with the lack of good lighting, which includes natural light, and they are: stress, memory and concentration loss, alertness, eating disorders, lower immunity, excessive use of drugs, cardiovascular disease, ADHD, depression, and lack of sleep. Additionally, some of these concerns can be the consequences of too much light at night: computers, phones, as well as poor indoor lighting. Also, color and colored light have profound effects on human physical, mental and emotional health.

Relevant contributions

There are times, I wonder when or who first considered the beauty of light when applied to nature. Was it Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? Was it an early Neanderthal or Denisovan seeing the illumination of nature from the fire light? In the latter part of the twentieth century, interest began to show in this understanding of nature and light. A number of key figures contributed to this development.

Landscape lighting designer Frank B. Nightingale (1885-1965) was the first to develop the art of landscape lighting design as a discipline. He published two books on the subject: ‘Garden Lighting’ (1958) and ‘Light as an Art’ (1962), and since he was also a magician: ‘Magic for Magicians’ (1964). He was the first to explore combining nature with lighting for night-time outdoor environments, and he developed several lighting fixtures that mimicked plants, and were specifically designed to blend in naturally with the environment. Frank B. Nightingale was known to offer tours of lit landscaped projects with music incorporated into the scenes he choreographed. The lighting was timed to switch on and off as he guided his guests through the space, speaking of lighting as an art.

The following individuals have taken a lead in understanding the health benefits of humans and nature.

  • Dr. Robert S. Ulrich – Director of Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University, Dept. of Architecture and Centre for Healthcare Architecture at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden – is the most frequently cited researcher internationally in evidence- based healthcare design. Published works: ‘View Through a Window’ (1984) and ‘Natural vs. Urban Scenes’ (1981).
  • Rachel and Stephen Kaplan are Professors of Psychology at the University of Michigan, Rachel_and_Stephen_Kaplan - cite_note-1 specialising in environmental psychology. The Kaplans are known for their research on the effect of nature on people’s relationships and health. Published works: ‘The Experience of Nature’ (1989), ‘With People in Mind’ (1998); ‘Restorative Environments’ (1988).

In his book ‘Biophilia’ (1986), Edward Osborne Wilson (E. O. Wilson) – University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard – outlines his theory of the health benefits of nature for humans.

  • Edwin D. Babbitt (1828-1905) was a pioneer in the field of chromotherapy, the use of colored light in healing, which he describes in ‘Principles of Light and Color’ (1878).
  • Clare Cooper-Marcus – Professor of Architecture & Landscape Architecture at University of California, Berkeley – and Marni Barnes – Psychotherapist and Landscape Architect at the Academy of Art University, San Francisco –published the book ‘Healing Gardens’ (1999), describing how gardens can be emotionally as well as physically healing.

Dr. Maja Petric is at the leading edge when it comes to experiencing space cognitively and emotionally. Her research focuses on the complementary potential of light and art to create a transforming human experience. Published works: ‘Light, Art and Biophilia’ (2016) and ‘The History of Light in Art’ (2017).

Personal Experience

I have been studying and practicing the art of landscape lighting design since 1999, which has given me the unique opportunity to create emotional spaces utilizing the plant materials, structures and garden art in the space. It is very important to me to affect the human psyche in a positive manner. Every garden I design has the goal of conveying a message, one that translates into the experience of inspiration, fascination, enchantment, or awe. Or of peace, solitude, calm or restoration.

Although most customers prefer experiences of joy and happiness, some prefer those that convey mystery, intrigue or fear. That is the advantage of being a lighting designer: we have the capability to manipulate light to produce a designed effect. It is extremely rewarding to know that a customer truly appreciates my work. One client told me how rejuvenating it was for him to sit after work on his darkened, upper deck, viewing his peaceful garden: "just staring at the way the light shimmers through the leaves of my aspen trees ... it allows me to breathe easier". He continues: "I find a sense of peace watching the deer feed in my meadow". Take a moment to visualize these settings and consider what it feels like.

Another client started crying when we viewed her illuminated backyard for the first time. This was very moving for me. Fortunately, it was early on in my career, and motivated me to be more passionate within my craft.

These examples prove that something deeper is going on when we combine light and nature with human interaction.

I have observed how easily this profession has become more of a technical procedure. It becomes a process and an end to a means, to sell the complete the move on to the next project. We should always be asking ourselves "Why?" Why do we provide the services we do? Is it not to "better" one’s life? Does it also consider well-being and psychological impact? We need to align with a common message and end goal within the lighting design community, to raise the question as to what our ultimate purpose is.