William Wordsworth climbed Mt. Snowdon in North Wales when he was 21. Undertaken mostly at night, it was an epic and spectacular slog. The young poet saw a flash of light revealing vast mists; he heard a “roar of waters, torrents, streams.” Arduous hiking was the X-Games of the late 18th century, a chance for young bucks to challenge their bodies and souls.
Modern Americans have inherited Romantic notions of nature. We too seek out the sublimity of ocean views and majestic peaks. I spent much of my twenties and thirties living in Colorado and Montana, playing on the dramatic slopes and in the clear rivers of the Rockies. My daily dose of nature was framed by champagne powder, mountain bluebirds and unpeopled ribbons of trails. I was spoiled.
Then my husband took a job in Washington, D.C., and we moved our kayaks and bikes to our asphalt driveway to collect grimy leaf-litter. It was time for an urban chapter, for honing our rush-hour driving skills, meeting work deadlines and triangulating busy family activities — usually indoors and requiring more rush-hour driving.
I gave up so easily on seeking nature, thinking, These aren’t the Rockies. What’s the point? This was a mistake. I suffered for my snobbery. I felt disoriented, overwhelmed, depressed. My mind had trouble focusing and I wasn't sleeping so well in my new urban jungle. I was perhaps, at least in part, suffering from what journalist Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.”
My move to the city is representative of the demographic and geographical shifts occurring on a global scale. If we can’t find some peace and restoration in these environments, we’re in trouble. Homo sapiens officially became an urban species sometime in 2008. That’s when the United Nations reported that for the first time more people throughout the world live in urban areas than rural ones. According to the last U.S. Census, most cities in the United States grew at a faster clip than their suburbs for the first time in a hundred years. We are in the middle of the largest mass migration in modern times, while astoundingly little planning, resources and infrastructure go toward making those spaces meet our psychological needs.
We are hurting ourselves by not prioritizing our deep human connection to the natural world. We’ve lost sight of how natural spaces — even citified versions of them — can help us feel psychologically restored. Nor are we aware that studies also show they make us healthier, more creative, more empathetic and more apt to engage with the world and with each other. Nature, it turns out, is good for civilization.
Natural spaces don’t have to be pristine or sublime or even particularly majestic for us to feel some emotional and cognitive benefits. Even Wordsworth figured this out, waxing on about everyday, even mundane elements found in still waters, birdsong, sunlight. Researchers in Finland backed up the poet’s intuition by measuring people’s well-being in three different environments: urban streetscapes, busy city parks, and wilder forests. The team, led by Liisa Tyrvainen of the Finnish Forest Research Institute, found that people began to feel psychologically restored after just 15 minutes of sitting outside in both the park and forest. After a short walk, these feelings increased, although slightly more so in the forest. And the benefits weren’t just about relaxation. On measures of vitality — which you’d think might rise in the city — only nature did the trick, although it took forty-five minutes of sitting and strolling. The study participants in the park or forest felt 20 percent better than their urban-streetside peers, and they also reported feeling more creative.
Recent studies led by Gregory Bratman out of Stanford University found that walking 50 minutes in a city park boosted people’s moods as well as their working memories and attention, while a 90-minute walk yielded changes to their brains in a way that can protect against depression. The second study, published in 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggested that being in the park (but not on a city street) reduced blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with negative thought patterns.
To these researchers and many others, it all adds up to this: get outside, regularly, and find some happy-making green or blue spaces wherever you may live. And to maximize feelings of restoration, experts like David Strayer, a psychologist at the University of Utah, says we should put away our cell phones and pay attention to the sounds and sights of nature. “When people use a phone, what they notice is cut in half,” says Strayer. The idea is to engage our senses and interrupt, even briefly, the steady drip of urban stress.
Taking this research to heart, I’ve changed up my daily routine. I now seek out the biggest, leafiest city parks when I can, ideally ones that feature bodies of water, and when I can’t do that, I try to walk along streets with the most trees. I extract the earbuds from my cranium and look for fractal patterns in branches and creek currents. Sometimes I grab a handful of pine needles and inhale their immune-boosting scent. I take more breaks to sit outside, and if I can’t do that, I’ll sit by a window. Sometimes if I spy a perfect pine cone, I’ll bring it in and place it on the dining table. This is micro-nature. I’ll take it.
My neighborhood hardly resembles the flanks of Mt. Snowdon. We should all be so lucky to experience rugged, wild and mystical landscapes on occasion, because our imaginations and our sense of ourselves in the universe need those places. Until then, I’ll be grateful for the legacy left by another Romantic visionary, Frederick Law Olmsted: city parks and urban trees.