Book Review: Neuroscience for Designing Green Spaces

Book Review: Neuroscience for Designing Green Spaces

Résumé en français

As landscape architects, have an intuitive understanding of the mental health benefits of nature and often include these in our designs. Our training includes biophilic design principles, which focus on incorporating natural elements into the built environment to enhance well-being. However, the extent to which we prioritise mental health benefits varies based on our knowledge, client preferences and project goals. In some cases, explicit consideration of mental health benefits may be a deliberate part of the design process, while in others, it may be a by-product of creating aesthetically pleasing and functional outdoor spaces.  

At the recent International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA) World Congress, Giselle Sebag, Executive Director of the International Society of Urban Health (ISUH), made the case for "landscape architects as healthy places change makers” and then challenged us by asking, "What can [landscape architects] do to encourage and sustain better health and well-being through landscape design?"  
Figure 1: Book Cover

Dr Agnieszka Olszwewska-Guizzo addresses this question and other pertinent issues in her recent book,  Neuroscience for Designing Green Spaces: Contemplative Landscapes. It is aground-breaking exploration of the intersection between neuroscience and landscape design.

The book offers a comprehensive and insightful look at how our brain's response to nature can be harnessed to create more harmonious and rejuvenating green spaces.  

 Dr Olszwewska-Guizzo is a Polish-Portuguese dual-citizen who,  “has encountered much interest in this study area from scientists, designers, and urban planners”.  She believes that built environment professionals and educators would appreciate her book as good reference for innovative green space design and as a textbook for landscape architecture courses.  In her epigraph she makes it clear where her inspiration for the book comes from by quoting Fredrick Law Olmstead:

 Charm of natural scenery is an influence of the highest curative value; highest, if for no other reason, because it acts directly upon the highest functions of the system and through them upon all below, tending, more than any single form of medication we can use, to establish sound minds in sound bodies.  Olszwewska-Guizzo's (2023: 1/1)

 The book delves into the science behind why natural environments are so calming and therapeutic,shedding light on the physiological and psychological mechanisms at play. It takes a multidisciplinary approach, combining insights from cognitive science,psychology, and landscape architecture to provide a well-rounded understanding of designing green spaces that promote well-being.

 One of the book's strengths is its emphasis on practical applications. It offers a wealth of guidance and recommendations for architects, urban planners, and landscape designers to incorporate neuroscientific principles into their projects. The authors provide a range of case studies and examples, demonstrating how these concepts can be put into practice to create contemplative landscapes that enhance human well-being.

 The writing is accessible, making complex neuroscientific concepts understandable to a broad audience. The use of visuals and diagrams further aids in conveying the ideas.The book also benefits from its comprehensive bibliography, enabling readers to dive deeper into specific topics. The book has three parts.

PART 1:  The Science Behind Contemplative Landscapes

Part 1 describes the origins of the concept of contemplative Landscapes and grounds it on the base of existing theories from the intersection of environmental psychology, neuroscience, and urban planning and design. The gaps in knowledge and issues are simultaneously highlighted.The urgency of evidence-based design for mental health in urban space is also explained and supported by recent data. This Part is in turn, divided into three chapters:

 Chapter 1.  Therapeutic Mechanisms of Urban Green Spaces describes new research about the mental health consequences of living in urban areas and how powerful Urban Green Spaces can be to mitigate these effects.

Chapter 2. Brain Response to Contemplative Landscapes and Mental Health Implications describes the concept of Contemplative Landscapes and the author's scientific findings on it, starting with juxtaposing this construct with other concepts in the literature such as "awe-inspiring","scenic", "restorative", "tranquil" and so forth– ending with the results of neuroscience experiments and what Contemplative Landscapes do to our brain.

Figure 2: Landscape as a portal to a contemplative state of mind – dynamic connection between inner and outer experience.

Chapter 3 asks, How to Benefit the Most from Contemplative Landscape Exposure? and discusses the conditions for unlocking the optimal effect of Contemplative Landscape. exposure.

Figure 3: Types of recreation in urban green spaces with examples of activities. (a)Active recreation (b) Passive recreation. Landscape contemplation best aligns with passive activities, increasing the mental health benefits of nature exposure.

The chapter concludes with a 'new mission for landscape architects".The author states:

Evidence from environmental neuroscience is giving landscape architects and urban planners ample empirical evidence directly applicable to their practice. These constitute a new set of tools for planning and design. We already know that greenspace design can immensely benefit all vulnerable communities, not forgetting that urbanicity makes all city-dwellers at risk of developing mental illness. …Through their design decisions, [landscape architects] can make the lives of countless people better, and with the awareness of specific techniques direct their interventions to unlock the highest mental health and well-being potential in the communities .


PART 2:  Contemplative Landscape Features

Part 2 describes seven critical features of Contemplative Landscape Models (CLM): Character of Peace and Silence, Compatibility,Landscape Layers, Landform, Biodiversity, Colour and Light and Archetypal Elements. Their origins and value for landscape design and the available influence on brain reactivity are discussed, along with the potential strategies of incorporating them into urban green spaces.

Figure 4: Contemplative Landscape Model and its relationship with existing frameworks

Chapter 4. Character of Peace and Silence discusses what the author believes is one of the most important contemplative landscape features and involves many unexpected insights and strategies for design.

Chapter 5. Compatibility is about the creation of the harmonic and adjacent scenery according to the design principles known since ancient times.

Chapter 6. Layers of the Landscape discusses the depth of the view of contemplative landscapes in cities. The author explains how the comfort of long-distance views and whether we can see a scene's fore, middle, and background can benefit us and what scientific rationale stands behind it.

Figure 5: Three distance zones, foreground,midground and background in (a) rural and (b) urban landscapes. In the city,visual distances are generally shorter.

Chapter 7. Landform is about the dynamics of the ground meeting the sky and the theory behind it.

Chapter 8. Biodiversity suggests that contact with animals and plants as life forms that coexist with us on Earth and the contemplation of nature creates the feeling of being part of one living ecosystem and that this feeling can be increased through several design techniques[1]  as well as the changing of the seasons.

Figure 6: Urban wetland providing a sense of wilderness experience to city residents. Tanner Springs Park, Portland, OR,USA.

Chapter 9. Colour and light explains how light conditions can contribute to the overall visual experience of the landscape and determine the perceived colours as well.

Chapter 10. Archetypal Elements explains the concept of landscape archetypal elements -scarce elements found in nature- and their origins in psychoanalysis and the mechanisms in which they are believed to work universally for all humans.

Figure 7: Massive waterfall filling in the space where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre once stood. Even though the site is full of visitors, it gives a sense of solitude and reorientation from the chaos of New York City.

PART 3 – Existing and Future Approaches

Part 3 is about practical considerations essential for implementing the CLM into the landscape architect's professional path. It features seven case studies with master plans and photos identifying best practices of contemplative landscape design from around the globe. It also includes a valuable field manual for using CLM as an assessment tool. Vision for the future and new approaches in research and design are also discussed here. It comprises three chapters.


Chapter 11. How to Design Contemplative Landscapes? Best practices and examples discusses how to incorporate the Contemplative Landscape features into the urban green spaces, considering the site and population specificity, and how CLM prioritises features for specific conditions. The following three case study diagrams illustrate projects the author referenced and describe their main contemplative features.

Figure 8: Maximising reorientation -masterplan and detail of High Line Park, New York.
Figure 9: Large-scale city park for contemplation:  Plan of Parque da Cidadedo Porto, Portugal.
Figure 10: Oasis that heals: The Therapeutic Gard @ Hortpark, Singapore.  

Chapter 12. How to Identify Contemplative Landscapes? A Step-by-step Scoring Guide on using the Contemplative Landscape Model onsite and for digital images, including calculating the Contemplative Landscape score.

Figure 11: Contemplative Landscape Model score sheet for on-site use.  

Chapter 13 - A Vision of a Mentally Healthy City explores the concepts of including mental health provision as one of the ecosystem services by recognising access to quality ecosystems as a human right.  


The most important takeaway message from Neuroscience for Designing Green Spaces: Contemplative Landscapes is that the design of outdoor environments can profoundly impact human well-being, and this impact can be understood and harnessed through the lens of neuroscience.

Nature Enhances Well-being: Natural environments can enhance human well-being by reducing stress, improving mood,and fostering a sense of tranquillity and connection with nature.

Design Matters: How green spaces are designed and organised can significantly influence the psychological and physiological responses of individuals interacting with them. Thoughtful design can maximise the positive effects of nature.

 Evidence-Based Design: The book promotes the idea that landscape design should be evidence-based, incorporating scientific findings from neuroscience and related fields to create environments that promote health and happiness.

 User-Centred Approach: Designing with the user's experience and well-being in mind is paramount. A user-centred approach involves considering how individuals perceive and interact with their surroundings.

Holistic Well-being: The book underscores the importance of addressing well-being's physical, mental, and emotional dimensions in the design of contemplative landscapes. It encourages designers to create spaces that cater to the whole person.

 Sustainability: Sustainable and eco-friendly design practices are environmentally responsible and contribute to the well-being of individuals who use these green spaces.

 Interdisciplinary Collaboration: The book highlights the value of collaboration between neuroscience, psychology, and landscape architecture, emphasising the potential for interdisciplinary approaches to creating more effective and therapeutic green spaces.

 Neuroscience for Designing Green Spaces: Contemplative Landscapes is a must-read for anyone interested in the intersection of science and landscape design. It expands our understanding of the human-nature relationship and equips professionals in the field with valuable tools to create green spaces that nurture our physical and mental health. This book is a testament to the power of interdisciplinary collaboration and its potential to shape a more sustainable and healthy future.

Full Title: Neuroscience for Designing Green Spaces: Contemplative Landscapes

ISBN 9781032280639

Author:  Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo

Publishedby:  Routledge, New York

Available at:

Cost of eBook:Approximately U$30

Reviewer: Graham A Young



The author has also referred to notes supplied by Dr Bruno Marques.