I live a short walk from Prospect Park, the Brooklyn sibling of Central Park. In the summer, the air of Prospect Park is filled with a shimmer of charcoal, the unrestrained shouts of children, and the gentle flap of kites shifting lazily in the breeze. Even in the off season, Prospect Park teems with life: joggers, bikers, and walkers all keep the barren trees company. I visit the park often. Though I choose to live in New York, I love the outdoors. Or, I choose to live New York because I love the outdoors.
A plurality of U.S. non-profits are in cities. Among my green-thumbed friends, the vast majority work and live in urban centers. It makes sense. Anthropogenic impacts are most deleterious where populations are densest. Thus many tree-savers head to the cities, where there are few trees to save. I’ve often thought about what this does to us – to separate from nature those who work to save it.
The impacts of nature-deficiency are of growing concern nationally. On the cover of Outside magazine last month ran the headline: This is Your Brain on Nature – How Getting Outside Makes You Smarter, Happier, and Want to Fix the Planet. The following excerpt from the Outside article describes five ways nature improves our mental health, based on cognitive science research:
- Increased attention span. A 2008 study by University of Michigan psychologists found that walking outside or even just looking at pictures of natural settings improves directed attention, the ability to concentrate on a task. Put another way: nature restores our ability to focus.
- Better memory. The same study supported previous experiments showing that being in nature improves memory—by 20 percent when it came to recalling a series of numbers.
- Reduced stress. Office workers with views of trees and flowers reported lower stress levels, higher job satisfaction, and fewer physical ailments than colleagues with views of buildings, according to a 1989 study by the University of Michigan.
- Improved mood. In a 1991 study by Texas A&M psychologists, subjects who viewed scenes of water or trees reported a much quicker return to a positive mood after a stressful event than those who viewed urban scenes.
- Greater creativity. In a pilot study this March, psychologists found that students in an Outward Bound course showed a 40 percent boost in frontal-lobe activity—which is linked to creativity—after four days in the backcountry.
It’s clear we benefit from being around nature. So what’s a young, urban environmentalist to do? Give up a promising career at a major urban non-profit? Move to Portland, Oregon? Or make the sacrifice: limit personal health to improve the health of the planet? Being a martyr has cachet. But, as the research above indicates, maybe sacrificing personal health for the planet’s health isn’t good business. By limiting our own health, we may very well limit our ability to help the planet.
If we want to save both nature and cities, we may have to bring them together. I am heartened by how many people routinely use Prospect Park, even in the depths of winter. It’s not just environmentalists and Mid-Town professionals taking their morning constitutionals. It’s New Yorkers of all colors, of all types, meeting in one park. Everyone who uses the Park understands the value of green space, whether or not they would call themselves environmentalists. If green space is important, big parks are a great fix.
But for many urban areas, it’s too late for a Central Park. So what to do? As Apple would say, Think Different. Take the Big Dig in Boston, which put a major interstate highway underground, freeing up space for a string of parks connecting downtown to the now vibrant city waterfront. And then there’s New York’s High Line Park in the once-industrial Meatpacking District, an elevated rail road track scheduled to be torn down in the ‘90s, but saved by citizens, and turned green.
On a recent winter’s evening, I stood against the railing of the High Line, while the murmurs of eclectic New Yorkers slipped behind me along a tree-lined pathway. Looking out toward the Hudson River, over the warehouses and piers and tugboats to the intermittently wooded and paved shores of New Jersey, I watched the sun die in a diffusion of colors made richer by the smog. It was industry and nature in beautiful synergy. Can one survive without the other? Yes. But I think they’re better together.