One Tuesday in April, New York City turned hot. I left the office to take a walk along the Hudson River, where people sprawled under trees in shorts and bikinis. Some slept in the grass with headphones plugged in; others treated the space like a natural tanning parlor. But mostly, everyone looked happy.
Personally, I don’t think I’d ever felt more grateful for sunshine. As I bounded down the boardwalk, the voice of George Harrison played on repeat in my head: Indeed, it had been a long, cold, and sometimes lonely winter. On a day like today, being indoors felt something like a prison that I needed, desperately, to escape.
Despite the crowds I saw that day, global trends suggest that experience might actually be pretty abnormal. All over the world, and especially in the U.S., people are spending less time outdoors and health experts are getting concerned  . In response, they’ve teamed up with urban planners and government representatives to redesign our cities so that natural environments are more readily accessible. The initiatives pose many challenges—not just financial and political, but also cultural. Americans seem to be moving toward two extremes: On the one hand, there are those who find it hard to pry themselves from their televisions, computers, and smartphones even for a walk around the block. And on the other hand, there are the very vocal advocates of urban green space, who say Americans need to revamp their attitude toward the Great Outdoors and begin to view it as a necessary, and enjoyable, part of everyday life.
City Slickers—Moving Away from Nature
Current statistics suggest that, as Westerners grow more comfortable in their ergonomic office chairs, they’re feeling less at ease among flora and fauna. In the U.S., the number of visits to national parks declines with each passing year . Only half of American kids go outside to play once a day . And in 2011, a British study found that, even during the summer, people spend just one to two hours outside per day .
There are plenty of potential reasons why we’re staying cooped up indoors. Some experts cite the rise of “videophilia,” or the tendency to stay sedentary, staring at computer and TV screens . Another possible explanation is that more and more people are trading out suburban and rural residences for life in cities. As of 2010, more than 80 percent of Americans lived in urban areas, and that number is projected to grow significantly over the next decade, both in the U.S. and around the globe.
For some experts, these trends are disturbing. Over the last few years, health professionals, urban planners, and city government officials have worked to make sure that even those living in concrete jungles have the opportunity to interact with some greenery. Their ambitions are pretty lofty: Instead of aiming to build a few parks and gardens, many organizations are trying to revolutionize Americans’ perception of the natural environment. Are these goals unrealistic, or can the efforts to create urban green space actually make a difference for the health and happiness of today’s city dwellers?
A Breath of Fresh Air—Why Green Space Matters
Advocates of urban green space are backed by a ton of scientific research. Most recently, in March 2013, researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh released a study that showed people’s brain waves actually differed when they spent time in built versus natural environments . (Built environments refer to places and spaces created or modified by people.) According to their research, even a short walk in nature produces neural effects similar to those achieved through meditation. Other research suggests spending time in nature is a great way to reduce stress, improve mood, and even boost self-esteem . When it comes to physical health, kids and adults who live near green space are more likely to be physically active and less likely to be obese .
Given these findings, it’s not surprising that going too long without stopping to smell the roses can have some serious negative consequences. City living in general tends to be more stressful than life in other environments, and some experts talk about “nature deficit disorder” as a condition in which our physical and mental health deteriorates when we lack contact with the natural world. It’s also worth noting that spending time in natural environments often involves some kind of physical activity, and the health effects of a sedentary lifestyle are too serious to ignore . In the United States, rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease have increased tremendously within the last 20 years, and many experts cite a lack of physical activity as a contributing factor.
Faced with this substantial body of research, many health experts are calling for changes in spatial planning policies, noting that green space isn’t just a luxury, but an essential component of human wellbeing . The result has been collaboration between medical doctors, urban planners, and city government officials to create environments that are conducive to physical and mental health. Over the last decade, these distinct groups have come together to promote urban green space and change American attitudes about the value of spending time outside. But, as it turns out, changing an entire country’s relationship to the Great Outdoors is no easy feat.
Innovative Spaces—Why Culture Matters
Compared to Europe and Asia, the U.S. places a relatively low value on outdoor experience. In Japan, the practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” is pretty common; the idea is to improve overall health by interacting with nature via all five senses. Meanwhile, Europe is forging ahead with more innovative ways to get people outside. Within the next year, for example, London parks may feature “biomimetic” infrastructure—Alice-in-Wonderland like structures that will allow park visitors to attend movie screenings, concerts, and restaurants outdoors. The point is to challenge people’s notions of what constitutes indoor versus outdoor activities, and to encourage people to make use of local urban green space.
Generally speaking, Americans are much more indoors-y folks—or at least they have been for the last hundred years. While most European cities were designed to be extremely walkable, the majority of American cities developed after the invention of the automobile, when walking was no longer the primary mode of transportation.
I spoke to Tim Beatley, author of Biophilic Cities, which highlights Western cities where urban green space is developed to be appealing and accessible. He talked about the challenges of fostering an American appreciation for nature, but noted that the U.S. is quickly catching up to the rest of the world. “Part of it is a recognition by the design and planning community: Nature and the natural environment is not optional.”
Going Green—U.S. Initiatives
Efforts to promote urban green space in the U.S. are complicated. The point isn’t just to designate spaces where a few environmentalists and hippies can go to get their fill of green, but to create environments where green space is everywhere, and open to everyone. The idea is that we shouldn’t have to drive to a park or a garden, interact with green space, and then drive home to sit in front of the TV for six hours.
It’s a challenge, but more and more case studies suggest that it’s possible. In Portland, OR (known for being one of the U.S.’s most environmentally-friendly cities), the Urban Greenspaces Institute works to create cities where the built and natural environments are seamlessly integrated. “We believe people should have access to nature the minute they walk out their front door,” said UGI director Mike Houck.
Similarly, SmartGrowth America is one example of a national organization working to redesign U.S. cities to reflect new American values, such as spending time outdoors and protecting the natural environment. And in California, the Healthy Eating Active Living Convergence Partnership is an effort to bring together funders, advocates, and government officials to create healthy urban environments such that bike lanes and parks are a mainstay of every city.
Green Matters—Prescriptions for Health
While some organizations focus on redesigning the environment, others focus on reshaping American attitudes toward the outdoors. The last few years have marked the rise of the national Park Prescriptions movement, in which patients receive literal doctors’ orders to exercise in a specific area of green space. In Arkansas, physicians send patients to the “Medical Mile,” a section of the Arkansas River Trail completed in 2003 via collaboration between parks and recreation services and Heart Clinic Arkansas. Meanwhile, Prescription Trails in New Mexico helps patients find safe, scenic routes for walking, jogging, hiking, and even wheelchair rolling.
Even when they don’t write a formal prescription, it’s becoming increasingly common for doctors to recommend exercise in green space as a preventative and curative measure for different ailments. Dr. Daphne Miller, a family physician and the author of Farmacology, is one of the leaders of this movement. “A lot of people know what their parks are, but they don’t necessarily think of them as a health resource," she told me. Suddenly they get advice from a doctor to go out and exercise, and those parks start looking more like a medicine.
Urban dwellers don’t need to wait for a doctor’s note to start cultivating a relationship with the out-of-doors. Many communities are taking it upon themselves to create a relationship with nature even in the most urbanized areas. Cities across the U.S. are witnessing tremendous growth in the urban farming movement, in particular rooftop farms. Urban farming allows people to connect not only with nature but also with their own food supply, which gives them even greater control over their health.
It may be some time before Americans as a whole start to embrace the possibility of spending time outdoors. It may be even longer before urban environments are developed so that city dwellers can spend as much time in nature as they do in front of a computer. But every expert I spoke with noted the tremendous progress the country has made in the last decade, noting that health professionals as well as the general public are increasingly realizing the inherent value of fostering a relationship with nature.
After all, as Beatley put it, nature is “what makes us human beings.”