Prescribing nature for well-being

Awarded one of three Big Idea honors, Nature Rx emphasizes time in nature as a means to ease stress.

Students lounging on the grass in College Green
Two students lounge on the grass in College Green on a spring day.

Calm days on the beach, the quiet of a forest, or even the whistle of wind gusting through the trees on Locust Walk: a new initiative at Penn aims to highlight these moments in nature as not just leisure, but therapy. 

Chloe Cerwinka, landscape planner in the Office of the University Architect in the Division of Facilities and Real Estate Services, led the proposal for the Nature Rx program at Penn, proposed as part of the “Your Big Idea” wellness challenge that invited students, staff, and faculty to crowdsource ideas that would improve the lives of people who are part of Penn’s campus. Cerwinka’s winning idea was to leverage the University’s 100 acres of open space, as well as unique status as the only urban campus arboretum, as a way to curb anxiety and depression among stressed students and the larger Penn community by advocating time in nature.

This initiative was a partnership between Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé, the Office of the Provost, and the University Faculty Senate. The Wellness Challenge ultimately selected three projects to fund from 14 semifinalist proposals pitched at an April 25 event. Ideas were for programs, amenities, or resources, and were encouraged to unite departments and schools.

Nature Rx gets to the heart of that, with support from a robust number of programs, centers, and schools throughout the University that expressed interest in working to support the concept.

“The idea [of Nature Rx] is that clinicians and health partners would write prescriptions for people to spend time in nature,” explains Cerwinka. “It’s really simple. You can spend time in nature any way you want to. And there’s scientific research that shows spending as little as five minutes outside in nature can help improve your health.”

In a three-minute pitch presented to a committee, Cerwinka cited research that shows anywhere from five to 20 minutes of time spent in nature can boost energy levels and decrease common symptoms of anxiety and depression while boosting the immune system.

“It was a difficult decision for the judges, but we ultimately selected Nature Rx as one of the funded proposals because it highlights readily accessible resources and can be beneficial to all members of the Penn community,” says Dubé.

Cerwinka says she began to think about Nature Rx in 2016, after speaking with a group at Cornell University that implemented a similar program; that initiative, loosely based on the Park Rx in America partnership co-run by the National Park Service, advocated not just scripts from clinicians, but a community culture that encourages students to look out for one another and prescribe nature to each other. Inspired, Cerwinka then spoke with representatives from the Morris Arboretum, the Penn Center for Public Health Initiatives, and others to gauge interest and discuss the possibility of a similar concept at Penn. When the Wellness Challenge finally surfaced this spring as an opportunity, she knew the timing was right. 

By coincidence, a major player in bringing Nature Rx to Cornell, Greg Eells, joined Penn in March as director of Counseling and Psychological Services and co-authored a book on the topic that published in May.

Eells notes that cities have always speculated that nature is a necessity for well-being, pointing to New York City’s Central Park as a prime example of maintaining green space for wellness. 

“I think that, in some ways, Nature Rx is a reminder of things we already know,” says Eells. “But a reminder, in a way, that’s a little different but helps people get outside of their heads and back into nature.”

Civilizations, he adds, have historically found spiritual and emotional solace in nature, especially indigenous cultures that felt profound psychological and emotional impacts from, say, a mountain. 

“The challenge in our modern world is we’ve moved away from that,” Eells says. “We focus much more on control, and I think the natural world reminds us much more of serendipity and meaning and flow, and confronts us more with things we often try to avoid, like cycles of life and death. 

“And so, I think nature is pretty amazing at reminding us of those things, helping us lean into some things we oftentimes avoid in our technological world.”

Cerwinka’s hope is that the language of Nature Rx will have a positive effect on the Penn community.

“It’s kind of the idea that if you talk about it as a prescription, people will start to take it more seriously,” she says, adding that there’s even a prescription card that’s been designed.

“It’s also not necessarily that hard to do,” says Cerwinka. “You can take advantage of nature in different ways that appeal to you. Maybe you want to walk to work if you can, or there’s a park nearby. The important thing is to get people to spend time in nature, and the prescription is one but it doesn’t have to be the only way.” 

Looking ahead, she’ll continue to have discussions with University partners to develop a Penn-specific plan for the idea that, she hopes, will remind students, faculty, and staff how important open space is to have—and how much of it Penn has.