Last changed: 02 February 2023

According to research, landscapes dominated by water can help induce calm, fascination and a sense of connection with the landscape. Watching or listening to water is often perceived as positive and attractive. Proximity to water can reduce stress, boost recovery and be recreational, even therapeutic.

However, it is rare for research to focus solely on the water environment. Water is usually only one element considered amongst many others in nature, for example when comparing the health effects of the park, the forest and the water environment. Surprisingly little research has been carried out on our experiences of the ocean.

Despite this, Völker et al (2011) – who coined the concept of blue space – has presented a good summary of the extant health research on nature environments with water. However, they note that there is a need for more studies in relation to feeling and experience.

Walks near water

When comparing walks in urban environments with walks along a water course (canal) and in nature (forest), it was found that both the ‘green’ and the ‘blue’ environment boosted recovery and improved cognitive ability (Gidlow et al 2015). Mood improved in all three environments, indicating that the walk itself also has a positive health effect. Koselka et al (2019) has also found that, regardless of the environment, walks contribute to a better psychological status.

A different study established that people walking next to water had a better mood and enhanced well-being compared to people engaged in the same activity in the urban environment or just sitting still in a room (Vert et al 2020). Research from Iran, which asked a thousand elderly Iranians about their outdoor habits, showed that those who got to stay in park near the ocean stayed outdoors for longer periods than those who spent time in a park in the centre of the city (Aliyas 2021). In addition, the people in the park by the ocean felt better than the people in the urban park.

Access and distance to water

Access to fresh water and coastal areas has been shown to reduce the intake of antidepressants amongst older people in Scotland (McDougall et al 2021). Having a lot of fresh water in the vicinity or living near the coast was the most significant factor. 

Clean nature environments but also built-up areas containing water have a positive impact on people and provide more recovery than environments without water (White et al 2010).

One review study shows a positive correlation between exposure to water, mental health and well-being and increased physical activity (Gascon et al 2017).

Activity or just being present and ‘taking in’ the surroundings

Many of the studies that have been carried out on health and well-being with water environments as an arena, are about activities carried out in or in relation to the water, such as surfing, dragon boating, sailing, kayaking, fishing or diving, to boost recovery from breast cancer, PTSD, mental ill-health and so on (Britton et al 2018).

But some studies also focus on 'just being' in the water landscape:

One Spanish study compared the experience of 25 people in a forest reserve, on a riverbank and in an urban environment. The participants were allocated into groups of six which were randomly assigned stays in all the environments. Once in place, they could do what they wanted, as long as they didn't swim, exercise hard or eat. It was shown that the mood of the participants improved partially in ‘green’ and ‘blue’ environments but not in the urban environment. Salivary cortisol (the cortisol level is counted as a stress marker) declined in the green environment but not in the other two environments. Heart-rate variability (HRV) was better in the blue environment than in the others. Several different values were therefore measured, but if we look more closely at the results, we see that they are confused and not significant (i.e., we can’t be certain that they are the result of chance) (Triguero-Mas 2017).

EEG measurements were also taken in health-care professionals whilst watching images of nature and water for twenty seconds. The researchers then saw that stress in the brain decreased, whereas a picture of a hard road surface like asphalt had the opposite effect (Cui et al 2021). According to the authors of the study, health-care professionals could probably therefore benefit from short breaks around water and nature to aid recuperation.

In another study, participants were able to view images from parks while the researchers measured skin conductivity and pulse rate (two different ways of measuring stress levels). In this case, it was observed that images of water reduced pulse rate and skin conductivity, which may indicate recovery (Zhang et al 2021).

In another study, listening to and looking at water at the same time, improved the mood of the test participants – they became happier, more relaxed and energetic (Zhang et al 2019).

/Text: Ann Dolling


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