Urban Wildness

Happy Friday, League!

This morning I was reflecting on the benefits and overall feelings of happiness and connection that I feel in nature and how they carry over for days afterwards. I realized that the idea of “being in nature improves the health and well-being of humans” could be flipped on its head to “being in modern/urban areas diminishes the health and well-being of humans.” If we’re saying that being in nature helps us to feel better in numerous ways (which studies are proving more every day), then perhaps the inverse is true – that when we aren’t in nature, we feel worse.

Every year as spring rolls around, my Facebook feed fills up with a meme that is a nature scene or a campfire, with a quote that says, “This is where I go to get right in my head” or another similar sentiment. I see it posted by people who are both young and old, and those who live on farms to those who live in the biggest cities in the world. But what does that mean for the rest of our lives? We tend to view time in nature as a luxury – something we only do on vacation or a holiday weekend. We need to start looking at it differently. 

Richard Louv, who in 2005 coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” marvels at the number of studies that have come out in recent years. When he wrote his book, “Last Child in the Woods,” he could only find 60 studies about the impact of nature on humans. Now, there are more than 1,000. He recently said, “They [the studies] point in one direction: Nature is not only nice to have, but it’s a have-to-have for physical health and cognitive functioning.”

My oldest son, who grew up in northern MN and has lived in Washington, DC for the last couple of years has commented that there is a pervasive cloud of stress that is constantly present, especially in core urban areas. I have asked him why he doesn’t spend more time exploring hiking options in his area, but he says it takes so long to get out of the city there’s no time left to hike. Even if a hiking spot is 60 miles away, it can take several hours to get there. Living where I do, I can’t conceive of a several hours drive to get out of a metro area, yet billions of people are in the same situation. It actually takes me several hours to get to a metro area!

Perhaps we need to consider that natural settings are ideal habitats for humans just like every other animal in the world, and that we need to prioritize spending time in nature, especially when we live in an urban area. We need to stop treating our time in nature as only a one week vacation that can resolve 51 weeks of living in harmful environments. 

There are some cities that have set the bar for combining the benefits of urban living with the benefits of nature access. Boulder, Colorado, where Dan lives, is one of those areas. It is a larger city, but nature is a constant backdrop. Wherever you are in Boulder, you can see the mountains from almost every vantage point. As a result, you are surrounded by nature all the time. And if you want to get deeper into nature? It’s a short trip to get there. 

In Minnesota, Duluth is another example. It’s a smaller city than Boulder, but one which has the backdrop of Lake Superior throughout much of the city. Duluth also does an excellent job of providing numerous outdoor opportunities. There are many large parks and trails offering ample green space and activity options within a short walk, bike, or drive. In other cities I have lived in, they throw a small playground onto a cement slab and call it a park. But some cities are starting to take notice of the benefits of including larger green spaces with trees and flowers that encourage wildlife. Boulder and Duluth are examples of cities where you can find a healthy balance of both modern convenience and nature.

Not everyone is going to live in an ideal environment with easy access to wild spaces. Not everyone wants to, and that’s perfectly fine! We all have to figure out the trade-offs of where we live. There are a lot of positive reasons to live in an urban area, including more jobs, diversity, access to cultural events and better educational options. If you live in a city, it just means you need to find or create those nature opportunities and make the best of what you have access to. Living in the city can’t be a reason why you never spend time in nature, because it’s vital and that is more clear every day. 

Over the last week, I’ve been wondering how we can help wild urban people get more exposure to nature. Everyone isn’t going to “go back to nature” and even if everyone wanted to, we wouldn’t have the space, the nature areas would be decimated by large influxes of people. But we can, I think, do more to “green up” urban areas. 70% of people live in urban centers and yet study after study shows the benefits of time outside in natural spaces. Time in nature is a need for our heath and well-being.

Regarding urban life, this study found:
living in greener urban areas is associated with lower probabilities of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma hospitalization, mental distress, and ultimately mortality, among adults; and lower risks of obesity and myopia in children. Greater quantities of neighborhood nature are also associated with better self-reported health, and subjective well-being in adults, and improved birth outcomes, and cognitive development, in children.”

The same study found that there are no measurable benefits from time in nature below 120 minutes a week, whether it was intentional (made a conscious effort to visit a park) or unintentional (you have a yard full of trees that you see all the time). For benefits to be measurable in this study, people needed to spend 120-300 minutes a week in nature spaces, whether that was a beach, a forest, or a larger urban greenspace. It could be 2 hours in a single chunk, like a weekend hike, or 2 hours spread out throughout the week, the impact was the same.

So what can you do if you live somewhere that isn’t obviously nature-focused?

Use what you have
*Even a few containers of plants on a balcony can change the feel of a small space.
*Plant a small herb garden on the kitchen windowsill.
*If you have a yard, use that space! You can actually grow food in a very small space. You can use containers, small raised beds, old barrels, bales of hay, all sorts of things to plant seeds.
*Plant trees!
*Consider “nature-scaping” your yard. Research what the actual environment is for your location and change your space over to something that matches the native plants. We let our yard grow wild, meaning we do mow it to keep with city regulations but we don’t plant sod, we just let grow whatever happens to come up. 
*Lobby your city council for more and/or improved green space.
*Instead of parking right at your place of work - park a few miles away and walk the final few miles as a way to incorporate more walking.

Look for hidden opportunities
*There may be things tucked away in nearby spots that you aren’t even aware of. There may be trails, parks, and creeks that you aren't aware of yet. Check your local chamber of commerce to see what might be hiding nearby!
*Look if there are arboretums or botanical gardens near you
*Check if your city has a “Tour of Gardens” type of event where you can get a map and walk around beautifully landscaped neighborhoods
*Join a local naturalist group. They often do weekly field trips all over local areas to go birding, rock picking, or just hiking. It’s a great way to find new areas to explore and to meet like-minded people.
*Participate in a community garden
*Check out some of the busier spots when it’s closer to sunset. People often abandon the beaches and trails at dinner time even though there are hours left of daylight at this time of year. I can usually watch the sunset on the beach or at the waterfall with no one else there. 

In conclusion, time spent in nature is vital to human health. We don’t always have easy access to it, but we can do things every day, and take small steps to improve our exposure to natural elements in our daily lives – and we must. Those who live with nature deficits are more likely to suffer physical health impacts as well as increased anxiety and depression. We need to change up how we view nature so that it becomes part of our life consistently, the same way we know we need to eat well and exercise consistently. It’s that important. 

Get outside this weekend, League, your health depends on it!

In wildness,

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