Does Bringing Nature Indoors Make Us Stronger or Weaker?

I was rudely reminded by an e-mail the other day that we Americans spend 90% of our lives indoors. But, there’s a cure–we can bring the outdoors inside! The rest of the e-mail gave me hope for my children and their poor generation… and then pure dread for the future of the human species. I’ll explain the progression and how it may change the way you think about interior design.

Watching TV... what else.

Watching TV… what else.

The e-mail was from a California-based firm called 5+design, which specializes in designing terrestrial landscapes inside of your home. The premise is a bit sad—that in fact, Americans spend way more time inside than we (a) were evolved for–if you believe in that–and (b) is probably healthy for us.

Yeah, yeah, we all know that we live a sedentary lifestyle, eat too many potato chips and GMOs and that we never get enough exercise. But what about the indoors-outdoors aspect? After all, weren’t we evolved to live outside, and haven’t the great “indoors” been a blip on the evolutionary timeline? In fact, most scientists agree that we haven’t even evolved to deal with modern domesticated food—much less the recent advent of a life without fresh air.

First, we lose out on sunlight. We all know about how our body is triggered to create Vitamin D through just a few minutes in the sun every day. But it also lowers cholesterol and blood pressure, increases oxygen in the bloodstream and stamina, strengthens the immune system and mental health, and it may even make little kids taller!

Second, we lose out on the natural flora around us. Plants obviously oxygenate the air near you, but also clean it in more minute ways. Plants in the near vicinity of people have also been shown to decrease cold-related symptoms, increase cognitive function and just plain make you happy.

So now that you’re not seeing the sunlight except for that blinding moment you spend scurrying between your car and your office—or your home and the office—how do we get our fix? If the only time you think about green space is fearing it during hay season, you’re not doing yourself a favor.

I recently wrote about indoor plants being the sign of adulthood—and many other things. And it is. However, I didn’t think about the whole package. How is it that zoos around the world have been trying to mimic the outdoors for their residents’ sanity while interior designers are still lagging behind? (Reminds me of the classic question of who’s domesticated who—man or dog?)How do we return the natural vibe our species craves? Can we emulate that during our predominantly indoors existence?

Well, you could just grow a big long beard, sell your possessions and become a mountain man—living off the land and following the paleo diet. But for those of us who actually like hot showers and ice cubes—and enjoy the fact that we are less likely to die from wolves, pumas and infection than any other generation in the history of humanity—there is an alternative. If we can’t be outside all the time—perhaps as we evolved to be—we can bring the outdoors in.

The e-mail gave me a pretty good idea of that alternative.

While I don’t care much to advertise a particular design firm, they do indicate a trend—a more holistic trend that most people have nearly internalized unconsciously. We need plants and sunlight around us at home, at the office and everywhere in between. Big windows have always sold for a big premium (they also helped keep patients from infecting each other in tuberculosis hospitals). And skylights were all the rage for several years. Now we have things like light tubes that help bring real natural sunlight into the great indoors.

And as architects have become more creative with green walls, built-in planters and mini-indoor gardens, we are, in fact, starting to bring the best aspects of the outdoors inside—without the mosquitos, the dirt or the mountain man beard. It’s like making a global bonsai—shaping the usually unwieldy exterior elements to our liking, but without any of the dangers or discomforts.



However, it then occurred to me that this industrial-scale bonsai-fication of the world is just making us soft. Despite Sir David Attenborough’s assertion that modern comforts have stopped human evolution, I completely disagree—for rhetorical reasons as much as scientific ones. I wonder if our cushy living arrangements will just allow us to evolve into softer and more physically pathetic creatures (see below).


So perhaps we can shield ourselves from nature, manipulate it into a bonsai version of it, and control it. But will controlling that nature instead of facing it make us stronger masters of nature? Or weaker servants to it? Then answer seems simple—get outside!! Yes, bring the outdoors inside as much as possible. Have plants, open the window, or raise a chicken–but that’s not going to ever replace just getting some fresh air. So, get out, enjoy the outdoors—and only then bring back what you can to your abode.

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