A recent article from The Boston Globe emphasizes at least one reason why naturalism — both in the sense of seeking out nature and the sense of finding ways to help nature flourish, as I blogged about yesterday — is important in the city.

Some quotes:

A city is so overstuffed with stimuli that we need to constantly redirect our attention so that we aren’t distracted by irrelevant things, like a flashing neon sign or the cellphone conversation of a nearby passenger on the bus. This sort of controlled perception — we are telling the mind what to pay attention to — takes energy and effort. The mind is like a powerful supercomputer, but the act of paying attention consumes much of its processing power.

Natural settings, in contrast, don’t require the same amount of cognitive effort. This idea is known as attention restoration theory, or ART, and it was first developed by Stephen Kaplan, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. While it’s long been known that human attention is a scarce resource — focusing in the morning makes it harder to focus in the afternoon — Kaplan hypothesized that immersion in nature might have a restorative effect.

Long before scientists warned about depleted prefrontal cortices, philosophers and landscape architects were warning about the effects of the undiluted city, and looking for ways to integrate nature into modern life. Ralph Waldo Emerson advised people to “adopt the pace of nature,” while the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted sought to create vibrant urban parks, such as Central Park in New York and the Emerald Necklace in Boston, that allowed the masses to escape the maelstrom of urban life.

Although Olmsted took pains to design parks with a variety of habitats and botanical settings, most urban greenspaces are much less diverse. This is due in part to the “savannah hypothesis,” which argues that people prefer wide-open landscapes that resemble the African landscape in which we evolved. Over time, this hypothesis has led to a proliferation of expansive civic lawns, punctuated by a few trees and playing fields.

However, these savannah-like parks are actually the least beneficial for the brain. In a recent paper, Richard Fuller, an ecologist at the University of Queensland, demonstrated that the psychological benefits of green space are closely linked to the diversity of its plant life. When a city park has a larger variety of trees, subjects that spend time in the park score higher on various measures of psychological well-being, at least when compared with less biodiverse parks.

“We worry a lot about the effects of urbanization on other species,” Fuller says. “But we’re also affected by it. That’s why it’s so important to invest in the spaces that provide us with some relief.”

I’m thankful, I guess, that our neighborhood has a fair amount of trees and wildlife.  I was on a tour of the old IPS School #3 building this morning and we went up onto the third floor (one of the higher spots in our neighborhood) and looked out over our neighboorhood.  What I saw from that vantage point was mostly the tops of trees and for that I was thankful — especially since I had just read this article from the Boston Globe yesterday.  I would argue that even in the densest of urban areas, there is still natural life to be found — trees, birds, plants — but it is definitely sparser and as this article maintains, there are so many other demands for our attention that nature tends to get drowned out.


A couple of days ago, I started re-reading Liberty Hyde Bailey’s book Outlook to Nature, and I was struck by how well these essays struck at the heart of what we are trying to do with this experiment in urban naturalism.

[ Outlook to Nature is available for for free through GOOGLE BOOKS: CLICK HERE.  Although as a bibliophile, I have concerns about the scope and intention of the GOOGLE BOOKS project, I am quite thankful that they have made this gem of a book available again.]

I invite you to read this excellent book along with me.  As a starter, here is his plea at the outset of the book to recover the beauty and splendor of the “commonplaces”; the places that become so familiar that we take them for granted.

So great has been the extension of knowledge, and so many the physical appliances that multiply our capabilities, that we are verily burdened with riches. We are so eager to enter all the strange and ambitious avenues that open before us that we overlook the soil at our feet. We live in an age of superlatives, I had almost said of super-superlatives, so much so that even the superlatives now begin to pall. The reach for something new has become so much a part of our lives that we cease to recognize the fact and accept novelty as a matter of course. If we shall fail to satisfy ourselves with the new, the strange, and the eccentric, perhaps we shall find ourselves returning to the old commonplace and the familiar, and perhaps we shall be able to extract new delights from them because of the flights we have taken. Perhaps in their turn the commonplaces will be again the superlatives, and we shall be content with the things that come naturally and in due order. Certain it is that every sensitive soul feels this longing for something simple and elemental in the midst of the voluminous and intricate, something free and natural that shall lie close to the heart and really satisfy our best desires. [3-4]

The essence of the city is the heaping up of “the strange and ambitious avenues that open before us.”  The city — Indianapolis or any other city — runs on the power of the new, the fashionable, the avant garde.  The French social critic Jacques Ellul notes in The Meaning of the City that since Babel, the mythological first city, the spirit of the city has been marked by a rejection of tradition, the “making of a (new) name for ourselves” — to borrow the biblical language.  Thus, where better to start to reclaim the commonplaces than in the heart of the city?  It is compelling to me that Ellul reminds us that arc of human history — according to the Judeo-Christian tradition — ends in a city, the so-called New Jerusalem, but this city is marked by the recovery of natural spaces — and indeed Bailey would likely call them commonplaces — of rivers, and fruit-bearing trees and gardens.