The case for designing tech-free zones in urban parks

Green spaces restore our focus, but a new study shows that screens have the power to negate nature’s influence.

By Eric Jaffe

Young freelancer man with laptop in the green tropical park of Bali island, Indonesia.

A freelancer holds a laptop in the green tropical park of Bali island, Indonesia. (Image: Artem Beliaikin / Flickr)

There is a modern-classic psychology study that gave people a tough attention test, then a break, then the same test over again. During the break, some of the participants walked through a big green urban park, while others walked through a downtown area. After the break, the park group scored significantly higher on the test — their brains refreshed from the leafy views in a way that the brains navigating busy sidewalks and storefronts and streets were not.

In the decade since that experiment, further studies have made it abundantly clear that greenery has a special power to sharpen our focus. The effect holds true whether people immerse themselves in dense vegetation, glance out the window at a green roof, or merely look up at a desk plant. The leading explanation why is called “attention restoration theory”: it suggests that greenery restores the brain through soft fascination, like a little waking nap.

This line of research is an important one for planners and developers focused on improving quality of life in cities. While the environmental imperative for urban trees is a given, the science shows the value of green space for mental health and worker productivity, too. Preserving access to green space in dense urban neighborhoods is an ongoing battle, so it’s worth remembering just how essential parks are to our basic well-being.

But something has changed in these past 10 years about the way we take breaks, walk through cities and parks, or do just about anything: smartphones (and other connected devices) have become our ubiquitous companion. There’s an open question about whether trees retain their restorative power in the face of digital competition. In other words, could screens mitigate — or even negate — nature’s ability to refresh our attentions?

A research team explored this very issue for the first time in a clever new study, and the results don’t bode well for our collective focus. In a paper published in a recent issue of the journal Environment and Behavior, the researchers report that “to enhance your attention functioning it is not enough to go to a green space; the evidence here suggests you have to put aside your electronic devices in that space.”

The Study

To reach that conclusion, the researchers recruited 81 test participants and gave them a baseline attention test that involves remembering a string of number sequences — an established cognitive task known to require a good deal of focus. There were no significant differences in the attention scores at baseline; statistically speaking, everyone performed the same.

After this test, the participants took a 15-minute break. Some participants went to a barren area with lots of concrete and no trees or vegetation, while others went to a park space filled with greenery. In both settings, some participants had their laptops, while others had no digital devices at all. Those with laptops were allowed to go online, check YouTube, answer personal emails — basically to do whatever they’d normally do during a work break.

After the break, the participants re-took the attention test. Only one post-break group scored significantly higher: those who sat in a park without their laptops.

The other groups showed minor improvements, as expected from people taking the same test another time. But the changes were not statistically significant. Those who took a break in the barren setting got no mental boost, consistent with previous findings. Critically, neither did people in the park who used their laptops. In fact, this subset of participants showed the least improvement of all:

For good measure, the researchers drilled deeper. They separated out participants who had only spent a little break time — less than half the 15 minutes — looking at their laptop. No change. Then they ran the numbers yet again, controlling for demographic factors, such as gender, race, age, and regular use of digital devices. Same deal. However the data got sliced, only tech-free park time restored focus.

The researchers conclude (my emphasis):

“When individuals spend time in green outdoor environments without engaging their laptop computers, their attentional functioning improves. The same is not true for individuals who use their laptops in green settings or for those assigned to the barren environment. For these individuals, a 15-min break was the equivalent of no break at all.

The Implications for Park Design

Not that there’s anything wrong with choosing to work outside, of course. But if your purpose is to take a nice work break, then when you spend that whole break on your device, you’re working without working, and your brain pays the price. Even Mother Nature can’t save you.

The likely reason goes back to attention restoration theory. Trees and other vegetation provide the soft fascination that clears your mind, but barren settings aren’t fascinating enough to refresh us, and digital devices actually engage our attention in ways that prevent our brains from hitting reset.

With the health of our planet at stake, cities don’t really need more reasons to push for more trees. Still, the evidence once again underscores the power of green spaces to restore our focus, suggesting the need to inject more parks into busy urban environments, especially near office districts and schools.

But the new work goes a step further to make the case for carving out “tech-free zones” within these urban parks. Some cities have already taken steps in this direction. In Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, the local council reportedly wants to create park spaces that are free of Wi-Fi and other connectivity — because, as the director of city innovation put it, disconnecting is “such an important part of our personal and social wellbeing.”