N for Nature: nurturing natural urban spaces

Picture by Karen Lin

When I attempt to meditate, I imagine myself standing in a sunny forest, my breath rising and falling like the nearby ocean tide. Nature is the forgotten friend that I turn to for comfort when I’m weary of suburban city life. In these moments, I think about how nature is missing from my daily life.

The best trip I ever took to the wild was a week-long backpacking trip in the New Mexican backcountry. With my crew, I woke at 6 am when the sun was rising, and slept at 10 pm when the sun went down. After returning home to suburbia, I returned to an unhealthy sleeping schedule. Despite having showers and sleeping in a clean bed, I felt depressed to be surrounded again by four walls after returning to civilization.

I wonder if the gap between the two lifestyles needs to be so different. What if we can make nature a daily part of our environment without withdrawing from human society?

Having nature nearby is important because it’s therapeutic. Quite a few studies suggest that just taking a walk through the forest can decrease stress and improve our health. Unfortunately, most city dwellers can rarely summon the time or motivation to travel to parks. Our parks are akin to zoos in that we observe and experience “the wild” in enclosed spaces, while homegrown plants and cacti wait to watered like pets.

When nature is so separated from our daily environments, we naturally surround ourselves with imitation of nature. We install astroturf on football fields. We play video games like Skyrim to relax among its beautiful digital landscapes. I play river sounds in the background when I’m working. And as virtual reality grows increasingly popular, we’ll be able to strap on headsets and immerse ourselves in “the wild.”

Our distance from nature, besides causing mental distress, also causes us to forget how much natural resources it takes to sustain comfortable lifestyles in urban spaces. I reuse, reduce, and recycle, using every inch of my scratch paper before discarding it. But together with my community, I still generate a mind-boggling amount of trash. I’m mindful of turning off the tap when I’m not using it, but still waste a shocking amount of water daily.

In Design of Future Things, Don Norman proposes that if people are “out of the loop,” and unaware of their situation, they cannot react quickly and effectively to problems. Our city infrastructure has abstracted our lives so much that we no longer know how nature works. And when the Earth’s health hits its nadir, we will all suffer for it. Nature is unforgiving, and we are lulled into a false sense of security with every day we spend in our cities. One camping trip will show how much we’re dependent on electricity, running water, and moisturizers. Not to mention gallons of mosquito repellent.

Nature, in all its immensity, also inspires awe and reminds us how small and insignificant we are. Astronauts constantly echo that sentiment when looking upon our planet from space. Personally, I feel a sense of terror when I look at the ocean and think about how its vastness can swallow me up in an instance (I’m not as brave as Moana). Nature should be reminding us every day of our human arrogance.

Are my dreams for such urban spaces naive? Perhaps. Without the expertise of a city planner, architect, or an environmental designer, I don’t have a concrete solution to propose at the moment. All I know is that as a human on Earth, I want to feel the dirt under my hands and the river in my fingers without needing to spend a colossal amount of effort. So for now, my meditation sessions will have to do.

This post is part of the Alphabet Project, where I write an article for each letter of the alphabet. It was inspired by Ash Huang’s Alphabet Meditations.

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