‘Blue Index’ Captures Our Emotional Reactions to Urban Waterscapes

By collecting immediate, on-site impressions of people’s experiences with creeks, ponds, and wetlands, new assessment tool could guide protection and restoration of blue spaces.

Being in the presence of water can lift our spirits, whether a rushing brook or a sparkling lake touched by a summer breeze. Human evolution was shaped by the ceaseless need for freshwater to sustain our thirsty brains, which are more than 70 percent water. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that during these very stressful times, being near water is rejuvenating and relaxing. Urban designers and city managers could benefit from a better understanding of human emotional experiences with water and how to enhance quality of life by providing more and better opportunities to interact with it.

photo of people at water
An abundant and accessible supply of high quality natural and built waterscapes is important, especially during difficult times. Photo by Rohit Gowaikar.

To this end, a practical new tool is being tested in Austin, Texas that holds promise for improving community mental health and happiness. Blue Index is a digital assessment tool that collects immediate, on-site impressions of people’s outdoor experiences with creeks, ponds, and wetlands, as well as built water features such as fountains and pools. It reveals which local waterscapes people most value and why, to guide public investments in protecting, restoring, and making it easier to enjoy these resources. Blue Index is the brainchild of Kevin Jeffery, a newly minted urban landscape designer recognized recently as an “Emerging Leader” by River Network.

An abundant and accessible supply of high quality natural and built waterscapes is important, especially during difficult times such as the current Covid-19 pandemic. Wallace J. Nichols, PhD, author of Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do, has been talking to mayors during the pandemic, urging them to find safe ways to maintain public access to water resources in their communities. Nichols believes that being in the presence of water is the “best medicine” for many people, and essential for people suffering from long-term stressors like addiction or PTSD.

As Nichols’ 2014 book explains, behavioral and social sciences show why spending time outdoors, especially near water, is so beneficial for human happiness, connectedness, and our collective capacity for action. Dr. Nichols was an advisor to the Blue Index project and his Red Mind/Blue Mind dichotomy is the foundational premise of Blue Index. Nichols defines Red Mind as an “‘edgy high, characterized by stress, anxiety, fear, and maybe even a little bit of anger and despair.’ This state is a result of the physiological stress response that evolved to help us survive…. [But if activated repeatedly], our stress hormones remain high and keep us in an agitated place.” By contrast, Blue Mind is a “mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment.”

Besides individual well-being, Nichols reports that time spent in nature also “make[s] us feel more connected to something outside of ourselves…[P]eople who viewed nature scenes … were more concerned with prosocial goals and more willing to give to others.” These observations align with psychological research showing that natural waterscapes are important triggers for feelings of awe and wonder that predispose people to compassion and empathy for their fellow human beings.

As the saying goes, “you get what you measure.” But how to measure the personal and social benefits of access to waterscapes? That was the question Kevin Jeffery set out to answer when he began to develop Blue Index.

Jeffery’s childhood experiences with scouting and camping ignited his passion for nature. Today, he has grown to become the kind of creative, aspiring entrepreneur that current global environmental challenges cry out for. He believes that “society’s biggest challenge is a lack of empathy for the planet and for each other.” Jeffery envisions new ways of caring for the planet and seeks to broaden the caring circle to engage younger generations living uncomfortably with the environmental consequences of an older generation’s choices.

photo of Kevin Jeffery Blue Index is the brainchild of Kevin Jeffery, a newly minted urban landscape designer. Photo courtesy of Island Press.

“To feel better and enjoy a sustainable lifestyle while doing less violence to each other and our natural surroundings,” Jeffery says, “people must see connections between things they value and their everyday actions.”

Jeffery’s first job out of college was working with adjudicated youth in Washington, DC to clean up the Anacostia River — at the time, a highly polluted and largely ignored tributary of the Potomac River. Bald eagles had abandoned the dirty river in the 1950s and the project’s goal was to bring them back by restoring their breeding habitat.

“It was the hardest and most rewarding job I’ve had,” he says. “I learned so much from these people, who were the same age as me, but hadn’t had the same kinds of outdoor opportunities. I watched their initial discomfort with nature evolve to confidence, then curiosity, and then caring.” This pivotal experience brought into high relief the benefits of time spent outdoors near water. “I saw the power of water and wanted to find ways to give people positive experiences with nature, each other, and with the local agencies that provide these opportunities.”

Water management agencies use all sorts of data-driven indices — water quality, biological integrity, flooding risks — but they don’t often measure human responses to interactions with water. As a graduate student at the Austin campus of the University of Texas, Jeffery created the Blue Index to close that gap. Over 18 months, from July 2017 to December 2018, his innovative concept was tested across a diverse array of waterscapes scattered throughout Austin, TX. Nearly 2,000 people participated in the initial pilot test of Blue Index. They snapped photos and answered survey questions to reveal key attributes of these places and their emotional reactions to being in the presence of water bodies across their city.

Austin is rightly proud of its trails, parks, and lakes. More than two million people live in the metro area and many enjoy outdoor recreation. At the same time, as a city of creeks, Austin is climate-challenged by frequent flash floods, increased sediment impacting the city’s water treatment plant, and algal blooms. To engage residents in climate adaptation and mitigation actions will require a better understanding of what people value in their environment. The lessons learned from Blue Index will help Austin’s government agencies do a better job of protecting water resources and providing equitable, widespread access to the benefits of being near water.

Jessica Wilson, Education Manager of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department (WPD), worked closely with Jeffery on the rollout of Blue Index. Wilson has devoted her career to water-related programs like creek cleanups and youth outdoor education. She points with pride to the city’s participation in The National League of City’s Connecting Children to Nature program, which recognizes that “Austin has a vested interest in ensuring all children in our city have the opportunity to connect with the natural world and help create the next generation of environmental stewards.” The city has adopted a Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights (COBOR) which holds that all kids have a right to splash in a creek or river, among other outdoor activities.

photo of people at water
Blue Index allows people to upload photos of their time at the water and log information about their experience. Photo by Kevin Jeffery.

In nearly a decade with WPD, Wilson says that, typically, her department hears from the public only when something is going wrong. “One of the things that I love about Blue Index — it’s an opportunity to hear why community members enjoy a water space. We get a lot of calls when people are unhappy about things, but we don’t often get calls that say ‘I really just enjoy this view and my life is better because of this. Blue Index provides data on what residents value and quantifies that.”

Wilson particularly appreciates the photo component. “We like seeing what inspired someone to snap a picture — people really love turtles! Plus, the photos are a time-lapse series of how a water body changes through the seasons and that influences how people feel about these places.”

Insights into the way people perceive Austin’s natural waterways suggest ways to enhance community well-being and resilience and where to invest for the greatest benefits. The results of Blue Index will be used by the Austin Watershed Protection Department to develop narrative criteria for assessing outdoor spaces and clean water management practices. Wilson observes, “While city is growing very quickly, we want it to be a livable city that supports people’s physical and mental health. Blue Index brings water to the forefront, instead of being taken for granted.”

Jeffery had planned to present his results to the Austin Sustainability Commission this spring, but the Covid-19 pandemic put that on hold. In the meantime, he is refining his methodology and talking with other cities about how Blue Index could help guide their investments in outdoor water assets. “It’s an easy way for cities to help people feel better,” he says.

Blue Index will help cities like Austin better utilize and sustain outdoor water spaces to the benefit of residents and visitors, public and private enterprise, and the natural world on which it all depends.

As the program expands, Jeffery anticipates that “a common set of design, management, and policy principles will emerge to help communities make better decisions on where to invest resources for the greatest public value.”

Putting a priority on more access to waterscapes can help people suffering from short-term or long-term stress, provide economic benefits such as increased property values and tourism, and guide decisions on how to recover following a natural or manmade disaster. “With widespread usage,” Nichols predicts, “Blue Index could become a national index, like walkability, that inspires local governments to take action to secure a high score, and informs individual choices about where to live and recreate, and what to do today.”

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