Plant Life Balance: Understanding the Health Benefits of Plants [transcript][audio]

Guest: Dr. Dominique Hes

Presenter: Wayne Bucklar

Guest Bio: Dr Dominique Hes is the Director of the Thrive Research Hub at the University of Melbourne. Dominique received a science degree from Melbourne University and followed this with a graduate diploma in Engineering (Cleaner Production) and a Doctorate in Architecture 2005 from RMIT University, Melbourne. Throughout her 25 years of working, learning and practicing in the sustainability field, she has asked the question why given all the effort being put into sustainability are we becoming more unsustainable, with most ecological and social indicators in decline. Though not resolved this question resulted in the book Designing for Hope: pathways to Regenerative sustainability, which investigates both the reason for our lack of progress towards sustainability and presents projects and approaches that are starting to address this.

Segment Overview: In today’s interview, Dr. Dominique Hes joins the program to discuss the work she does at the Thrive Research Hub. They specialized in research that leads the supporting industry community to be healthier and more sustainable. She emphasizes on the health benefits of plants can offer to people in their daily lives (which is called the Plant Life Balance). She highlights the fact that the majority of the research on the benefits of connecting people to plants is from hospitals, schools and offices. If people have used that windows or have plants around them, then their use of painkillers goes down.


Wayne Bucklar: You’re listening to Health Professional Radio. My name is Wayne Bucklar and today, I’m joined by Dominique Hes. Now Dominique is joining us from the Thrive Research Hub at the University of Melbourne and I have to admit Dominique, that’s not a name that immediately tells me what it’s all about. So do tell us what it is you do.

Dominique Hes: Here at the Thrive Research Hub, we specialize in research that leads the supporting industry community to be healthier and more sustainable. We do research with partners on real projects such as this one where we’re really giving people the ability to connect the health benefits of plants with their daily life.

W: Okay. So that I guess one of those research projects where my grandmother would say, “Well of course, everyone knows that.”

D: That’s right.

W: Just how hard is it to prove something like that?

D: Well, there are many, many types of plants and there are many types of spaces and we have a lot of different things happening in all of those spaces. So there is a lot out there on different plant species and they’ve tested them with absorbing different types of say Benzene, or other emissions, or particulates of dust and so forth, or pollens and so there’s lots of research but they tend to be piecemeal. It tends to be one plant and one type of emission or it tends to be very specific like NASA did research on spaceships and astronauts and their well-being in plants. So bringing all of that together into something useful and practical for the everyday person was a challenge.

W: So it’s a lot more complex and putting a pot plant on your office desk. Who benefits from Plant Life Balance? Who gets the benefit here?

D: So the app and the research are free. You can download from the website, the simplified research report and you can download the app for free and you can use it to analyze your own space, and drag and drop different plants that you like and see what benefits. So that’s all free and it benefits whoever is using it. Whether you’re at home, or at school, or in the office or in a hospital, there are benefits that’s shown in the research for all those. But this app is specifically aimed for your apartment, your lounge room in your home, for your living areas. And the other beneficiary obviously this was funded by Hort Innovation and the Nursery Garden Industry Australia. They sell more plants. It benefits them.

W: Dominique, many of our listeners are health professionals and the majority are either an acute care in hospitals or in aged care. Why is the Plant Life Balance research relevant to them do you think?

D: Actually, the majority of the research on the benefits of connecting people to plants is from hospitals, schools and offices. And great deal of it is looking at people’s well-being and particularly in hospitals and if people have used that windows or have plants around them, then their use of painkillers goes down. They recover quicker and that’s because they’re less stressed. Often, stress is a huge compounder to any issues that we have. And if you think about where we evolved as humans, we evolved in nature and it’s only really the last 200 years that we’re spending most of our time indoors. And so our brain is much more relaxed and at ease when we’re connected to nature and when it’s relaxed and at ease then we get over things better, we can communicate better, we can deal with issues better. We don’t get so stressed and all of those issues that make things worse. I can throw some references at you but I’m sure that your fine without them.

W: We will let people download those later.

D: That’s right.

W: You’re listening to Health Professional Radio. I’m in conversation with Dominique Hes, Senior Lecturer in Sustainable Architecture at the University of Melbourne. Dominique has degrees in Botany Engineering and Architecture and as a Director of the Thrive Research Hub at the University of Melbourne. And we’re in conversation about some fascinating research they’ve been doing about Plant Life Balance. Dominique, why did you want to take this research?

D: I’ve been teaching the importance of connecting people to nature for over two decades now. And so the opportunity to do a piece of work that brought all of these expert research together made it incredibly accessible, was just too good on opportunity to go past. I really love the ability to communicate simply and effectively.

W: Why do you sit being so important to connect greenery into people’s lives?

D: Well, there’s just a recent report out of the U.S. which showed that they looked at the metadata of over a hundred thousand women. And those that live 300 meters and less closer to green spaces were lived for up to 12 years longer. For stuff like that is amazing that to know just that impact that nature can have on us. And within the home, there are so many opportunities to just live happier, healthier life by connecting us to the plants. It has indoor air quality benefits, absorbs toxins and particulates and so forth from the air and then it has all been benefits which is that biophilia I mentioned before where when we connect to nature, we are more relaxed, we’re more intuitively. It’s like having a good night sleep.

W: You’ve inspired me now to throw out my plastic plants from the studio and put in some real ones I think.

D: Well, it’s interesting that you say that because a plastic plant is better than no plant.

W: Really?

D: But a real plant will trump a plastic plant and a collection of plants will trump a single plant. So we have this lovely hierarchy that was developed through the research. I can read it for you. A plant is better than a picture of a plant is better than a green colored wall or nature like paint is better than nothing. More plants is better than fewer plants. Diversity instead of than less diversity. Green is better than other colors and flowers are better than no flowers. So that all comes from the research.

W: I might have to move the studio into the greenhouse I think. It is interesting that in our office, in our studios, we prohibit plants because of the risk of damage from the water when they’re being watered. So it is interesting that there’s real and scientific evidence that we ought to take the risk.

D: And if you don’t, then at least try some plastic ones in there from beautiful images of nature.

W: It’s interesting research. Now, what do you think is the biggest misconception the public has about urban greening and the things that keep you awake and drive you crazy?

D: Well for the health, the number of people and the number of interviews I’ve done well, we’ve had callers come in and said, “But I’m not a green thumb. I kill anything I touch.”. And that drives me crazy because we didn’t learn to cook the first time we tried, we can learn to ride a bike the first time we tried, yet we expect to be able to keep a plant alive for the first time we try. But then there are sort of plants that you can pick that are very hard to kill that are excellent for our air quality like mother-in-law’s tongue, or a peace lily or the weeping fig. These are all great air quality and well-being plants that also are good for those of us that feel that we aren’t good at keeping plant alive. That would be the sort of indoor main misconception that drives me crazy.

W: Well, we hope we’ve reached some green thumbs today Dominique. For people who are fascinated and want to get in touch with you or indeed want to download the app, give us the addresses where people can get it from and how they can reach out to you?

D: They can contact me directly at the Thrive Research Hub but also, just type in a Google search, Plant Life Balance. It will come up with the website. If they want to download the app, it’s available in the App Store for the various types of phones. So it’s very accessible. There were a couple of other things I wanted to mention which you might not have expected that we found from the research and then one of those is that accessibility to green space is correlated with a lower obesity index. But I thought that might be of interest to some of your listeners.

W: Lots of our listeners, yes.

D: That was a 2007 study by Mills and Hansen. And the other bit that I thought might fascinate you is that what we’ve found is that it’s not just the plant that’s important but it actually the size of the pot and the health of the soil that the plant is in. It kind of makes sense because our health is determined by how well the bacteria in our gut work. And for a plant that bacteria in its root system. It is in the connection between the soil and the plant where it gets its nutrients and so forth. And so better soil, better quality, bigger pot for your plants actually equates to more absorption of pollutants from the air.

W: Fascinating work, Dominique. Thanks for your time today. I appreciate you’ve been busy with your promotion here and it’s been good to have a chat with you.

D: Wonderful. Thanks for having me.

W: I’ve been in conversation with Dominique Hes, Senior Lecturer and Sustainable Architecture at the University of Melbourne and we’ve been talking about her work and in fact, the app that goes with it on Plant Life Balance and you can find that just by googling Plant Life Balance. If you’ve missed my conversation, you’ve missed a really intriguing piece of research. But the good news is on our website, we have a transcript. You can also listen the audio archive on iTunes, SoundCloud or YouTube. This is Health Professional Radio. My name is Wayne Bucklar.

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