I recently returned from a three day backpacking trip in a remote area of the George Washington National Forest. It was a much needed vacation from my urban-focused life, allowing me to reconnect with nature, and helping ward off symptoms of Nature Deficit Disorder. Yes, that is a thing.
Don’t get me wrong, I love living in the city, and actually prefer it to a rural or suburban lifestyle. But as someone who has also spent significant periods of their life residing in rural places, I recognize the countless emotional and physical advantages that engaging with nature on a regular basis provides. Escapes to the countryside or hikes in the wilderness are a necessary part of my life, and are a large part of what I discussed earlier in my post Why I Walk: A Pedestrian Manifesto.
Richard Louv coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Wilderness. Louv makes the argument that today, children are becoming increasingly isolated from, and even afraid of, nature, spending large amounts of time indoors, often staring at screens. He further argues that this lack of interaction with the natural world results in a wide range of behavioral and health problems. While Louv sees this as a more recent phenomenon, its origins date back to the industrial revolution and urbanization in the 18th and 19th centuries.
How, then, do we reconcile our urban lifestyles with the desire and need to connect with nature in order to ensure both physical and mental health? A chapter in Louv’s book, “Eden in a Vacant Lot,” suggests that even small, untended pieces of land offer opportunities for exploration and discovery of nature, and rejoices the tens of thousands of vacant lots in Detroit as providing countless opportunities for this.
However, if we are to truly integrate nature into the lives of city dwellers, we need to think beyond vacant lots. Patrick Geddes, an early 20th century Scottish urban planner, did just that. Geddes believed that urban areas were the ideal space for human existence, but recognized that this built environment must be part of a broader region that encompassed the historic environments and experiences of our shared past. He realized that cities are not vacuums (leading him to invent the term “conurbation”), and that our existence in them should likewise not be in a vacuum. We should not only interact with people from all walks of life, but we should interact with all different types of environments (this can best be seen in his plan for the White City in Tel Aviv.)
Just because you live in a city does not mean you can’t explore nature. Go to a park, walk along a waterfront, and if you are lucky and able, go for a long hike or walk just outside your city limits. It will do your mind and body a wealth of good.