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I shared a recent New Yorker article this week about "How Trees Calm Us Down" that led with a mention of Roger Ulrich's 1984 study of surgical patients in hospital rooms with views of trees vs. a brick wall.

How is it that 31 years after Ulrich's study was published in Science, it's still the go-to reference for talking about the health benefits of nature? There have been other studies on this subject (check out the American Society of Landscape Architects' website for a comprehensive list). Why does Ulrich's study have so much staying power?

I decided to read the Science article again.

Now, I'm no researcher, but one of the reasons I think Ulrich's study comes up over and over again is that it was an extremely well-designed study. The variables -- room and window size, arrangement of beds, furniture, and other major physical characteristics are nearly identical in each patient room.

The only thing that was different is what is seen through the window. Trees vs. a brick wall.

The patient population was also the same -- all had undergone the same type of gall bladder surgery and were between the ages of 20-69. Any who developed serious complications or had a history of psychological problems were excluded.

The bottom line? Patients with the views of trees had shorter postoperative hospital stays, fewer negative comments from nurses, took fewer drugs, and had slightly lower scores for post surgical complications.

And that's still pretty powerful data about the health benefits of nature. Even after all these years.

Where is Roger Ulrich Now?

After many years at Texas A&M University, Ulrich moved to Sweden several years ago and is now teaching at Chalmers University of Technology.  As the 2015 Changemaker Award winner, he'll be giving one of the keynote addresses at the Healthcare Design conference in Washington, D.C., in November.

In 2010, I interviewed Ulrich for a piece that was published in Healthcare Design. In it, he talks about the impact of his landmark study -- on his career and the industry.

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Photo Credit:  Henry Domke

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Leave a comment

Len Berry

9 years ago

No one knows more about evidence-based design than Roger Ulrch. A true change maker.

Kirk Hamilton

9 years ago

Like many others, I frequently cite Roger's important work, and I make sure my students are aware of his impact on the field.

Penny Martin, PhD, NP

9 years ago

The Ulrich study to which you refer is, indeed, still powerful and important. But I hope people take the time to obtain and thoroughly read the many other studies that have been done on this topic. Many are as enlightening -- and, now, we are starting to look at WHY nature works and in which parts of our brains. Fascinating.

Joseph Sprague

9 years ago

As a scientist Roger Ulrich is a pioneer in EBD, and so highly deserving of the Changemaker Award. Congratulations Roger!

Prof Jan Golembiewski

9 years ago

I use the study - and others by Ulrich on a daily basis. We all do (and thanks for them, Rodger) but I also find them frustrating, in that the hypothesis Urich presents is too weak to allow practitioners licence to extend the effects beyond views of nature: indeed, even Ulrich showed difficulty - take the tepid results of Ulrich R.S., Simons R.F. & Miles M.A. (2003) for example.

To move forward, we must look into more sound theory - we must learn about WHY. The evolution hypothesis is a schematization of Darwin's theory to the point of meaninglessness. Likewise the Wilson's biophilia hypothesis and its attendant attention hypothesis (Kaplan and Kaplan) are lovely ideas, but don't allow us to reach above and beyond. To establish the importance of 'views of nature' they're great, but beyond that, they are just not that useful.

The reason for the 30-year hiatus on innovation is probably the one thing Sara loves about the Ulrich study - the quality of the evidence. The EBD movement is so tortured by the idea of repeating this, that academics in the space routinely turn their backs on anything that doesn't demonstrate the same standards of evidence - effectively nipping innovation and research in the bud. (And by the way - whilst very high standards are placed on drug testing, most surgical procedures are far less rigorous in their discovery process.)

I don't wonder why we still refer back to Ulrich at all, that part's easy. I wonder why we still have to.

Ulrich R.S., Simons R.F. & Miles M.A. (2003) Effects of environmental simulations and television on blood donor stress. Journal of Architectural Planning and Research 20, 38–47.

Carole Hyder

9 years ago

As a Feng Shui consultant for over 20 years, I have cited Ulrich's work for several years. My work has taken me mostly into hospitals and medical settings where the application of his findings support good Feng Shui principles as well as remarkable healing in patients.

Sara Marberry_013-Retouched-New copy

What's my story? I'm a healthcare and senior living design knowledge expert who writes and speaks frequently about trends and issues affecting these two industries. I'm also a strategic marketing consultant and content creator, working with companies and organizations who want to improve the quality of healthcare and senior living through the design of the physical environment. You can reach me at .

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