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The Benefits of Nature for Every Age

Donald A. Rakow, Ph.D. | Associate Professor of Horticulture, School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University

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“All people, every single person on this planet, deserves to spend time in nature and benefits from time in nature.” In his speech, “The Benefits of Nature for Every Age,” Dr. Donald Rakow, associate professor of horticulture at Cornell University, discussed the mental health concerns that college-aged students are currently facing in the United States and the program he has designed to help address it.

“What are the primary barriers that are keeping young, urban people of color from spending more time in parks and green spaces?” As the Director of the Nature Rx Program at Cornell University, this is a question Dr. Rakow has been considering for quite some time. “We have come to realize from the data we’ve collected that it’s not just a matter of how close is the nearest park — there are a variety of social, psychological, physical and attitudinal issues that create and continue to perpetuate barriers.”

Cornell students, in particular, have a lot to benefit from by spending time in nature. “We have what is often rated as one of the most beautiful campuses in America, yet we have one of the most highly stressed and psychologically troubled student bodies of any college or university in America. We felt there must be some way of marrying the beauty of this campus with the wellbeing of our student body. And that really is what served as the germ of the idea for what came to be Nature Rx at Cornell.”

Currently, Dr. Rakow is working with colleagues and Cornell Health to develop the Nature Rx program. The program recommends time in nature as an official prescription for struggling students and has officially become a part of the student body’s electronic health record at Cornell. “This past academic year, that is the 18-19 academic year, 758 Nature Rx prescriptions were handed out to students.”

Another component of the Nature Rx program is its website. This site describes and portrays 16 green spaces on Cornell’s campus and gives walking directions to each from any student’s location. In addition to this, Cornell has developed a Nature Rx course for first and second-year students which will get them out and moving in nature. “We had two goals with this class. The first is just to expose our first and second-year students to the wide variety of natural and landscaped areas that we have both on-campus and within Tompkins County. The second goal of this class is a little more in-depth. We want each of the students — through prescribed readings, through critical reflections, and through experiences like this — to develop more personal, and intimate relationships with nature that will last them their lifetime.”

The Nature Rx program is now nationwide with 22 participating campuses and still growing.

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Speaker Bios and Abstracts

About the Speaker

Donald A. Rakow is an associate professor of horticulture in the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University. Dr. Rakow served as the E.N. Wilds Executive Director of Cornell Plantations (now Cornell Botanic Gardens) from 1996 – 2014. He is also the co-director of the Cornell Master of Professional Studies Program in Public Garden Leadership and teaches the course Public Garden Management. 

Dr. Rakow is the co-author, along with Ms. Sharon Lee, of the seminal text Public Garden Management (Wiley & Sons, 2011).  He, Ms. Lee, and Professor Meghan Gough of Virginia Commonwealth University are co-authors of the upcoming text Public Gardens and the Creation of Livable Cities (Cornell University Press, 2020).  Dr. Rakow also directs the Nature Rx@Cornell program and, along with Dr. Greg Eells, is the author of Nature Rx: Improving College Student Mental Health (Cornell University Press, 2019).

Dr. Rakow has written frequently for Public Garden magazine and served for many years as the chair of the Editorial Advisory Group of the American Public Gardens Association (APGA). For his many efforts on behalf of this association and the field of public gardens, Dr. Rakow has received the APGA Service Award (2009) and Award of Merit (2015).

Dr. Rakow frequently consults with public gardens on strategic planning, organizational development, executive searches and transition planning.