I’ve always lived in cities. Other than the four years of my undergraduate at St Andrews, everywhere I’ve lived has a population in the six digits.
But I’ve also always loved the outdoors. My dad grew up in the countryside, and from a young age he took me and my sisters camping, canoeing, cross-country skiing, and even just walking. We’d drive for half an hour to take a bike ride through the woods, or for four hours to camp in our favourite provincial park.
In my adult life, I spent years living with one of Edinburgh’s many lovely parks on my doorstep. I used to go for walks and runs there before work, my asthmatic lungs wheezing with the dewy morning air. Sometimes in fair weather, I’d walk through Holyrood Park to get to the city centre instead of taking the bus.
Even in St Andrews, which I rarely left (other than to take the train to Edinburgh to visit my partner), I found all the wee walking shortcuts down by the burn and through the trees, or alongside the whispering wind off the sea.
When we moved back to my hometown, I struggled. You see, I’d always lived in houses growing up. Houses with their own back gardens. Even our flat in Edinburgh had a wee drying green out the back. My husband and I moved into an apartment right downtown, to be close to where we worked, and there was very little green.
My city is not a pretty city, not like Edinburgh. It’s not majestic Georgian sandstone buildings and cute mediaeval cobblestones. It’s concrete and steel and old industrial warehouses. There’s one park downtown, but it was about a ten-minute walk from my apartment and, being the only park, is always teeming with people when the weather’s nice.
For the first time in my life, I looked out the window and saw another building, not grass and trees. I woke in the morning to the sounds of commuters honking their horns. I stepped out my door to cars and ugly architecture, with nothing but the tiniest of gardens on my walk to work to break up the grey.
Anyone who knows where I live might think I’m being unfair, and perhaps I am. I did in fact live next to yellow and red brick buildings, both of which are regarded as heritage buildings. Even still, they felt cold and industrial (because they are – one’s a former warehouse and the other was a tannery) compared to the old stone homes I was used to seeing, and there was so much less green.
I’ve always nurtured a dream of moving to the countryside ‘one day’. My husband and I have talked about retiring on Skye in the distant future. But it wasn’t until the past couple of years that I’ve felt stifled by the lack of nature and greenery. Last time I visited my in-laws, in rural Scotland, my heart hurt at the thought of leaving the rolling hills and trees behind. They live in a beautiful area, but I’ve never before felt such a sense of loss at leaving behind the scenery.
That was when I started to realise that I needed a change. It was further confirmed when we visited some friends in Toronto – a much bigger city than ours – and sat out on their balcony, surrounded by potted herbs and overlooking the downstairs neighbour’s garden. It was so quiet and peaceful, even though they live in a condo and there were neighbours all about, the sounds of cars and trams shrouded by the trees and bushes.
Although that visit may have been what made me realise I needed more green in my life, it was also, in retrospect, a reminder that I didn’t need to wait until we could leave our jobs and move to the countryside. If my friends could manage that in the middle of Toronto, surely we could manage in our much smaller city.
So we started looking for houses.
I feel I ought to point out that we didn’t solely move from a 600 sq ft apartment to a 1500 sq ft house just so we could have some greenspace. There were a lot of factors that went into it, and it was something we’d been talking about for a long time, but we did know going into our search that we wanted some outdoor space of our own, where we could sit outside on long summer evenings and watch the seasons change whenever we looked out the window.
It’s made an enormous difference. Now, I can look out my kitchen window and see the sunshine on the wooden deck, dancing through the wind-rustled leaves. I can step outside for 5 minutes while I drink my tea and take in the sounds of the birds and the crickets and the breeze in the trees.
And it is so quiet. I didn’t realise how much sound-proofing trees provide until we moved here. We’re near two of the main roads through town, but you’d never know that from sitting in our house; we so rarely hear traffic at all. I just saw a car go past my window, and I only heard it because I was listening for it.
Even with our own garden (for the first time since moving out of my parents’ house), I do still find myself struggling for greenspace at times. We moved at the end of September, so we only really had a week or so when it was mild enough to just sit in the garden. It is, however, the perfect time of year for long walks through the woods; the mosquitoes are gone, and the humidity and temperature have dropped to a far more manageable level.
And so it is the time of year when I’m noticing my need for green even with my own new back garden. These pockets of green it provides in my day are vital, but I also crave longer sessions, alone in the woods save, perhaps, for my chosen companions.
This isn’t just in my head, of course. There’s research linking time in nature to positive mental health, including stress reduction, with the Japanese concept of forest bathing specifically focussing around spending time mindfully in nature.
I’ve come to think we need both daily access to nature and longer, perhaps less frequent sessions. Of course, if you live in the countryside this is easy. You can take those longer sessions any time you step out your door, and your daily access is right outside your window.
But for those of us in cities, it’s more challenging. We’re often surrounded by steel and concrete and lucky if there’s even a patch of grass outside the window, let alone a tree or field. To get that daily fix of green, we need to make changes to our home environment.
This doesn’t mean as bold a change as quitting your job and moving to the countryside, or even buying a house with a garden like I did. It can be as simple as growing some plants in your flat, or seeking out one that will take you through a park on your daily commute next time your lease is up.
It can also be finding the little parks scattered through many cities, or taking a short bus ride to visit some of the larger ones, as often as you can. Perhaps the best you can do on weekdays is take a walk through a tree-lined street on your lunch break, but once a week you detour on your trip home via the city’s largest park for a twenty-minute walk.
If you’re anything like me, however, one of the biggest benefits to spending time outside is the complete and utter solitude of being the only person you can see or hear in the woods. And that’s hard in a city park. This is why it’s also important to take more focussed trips. It doesn’t have to be a long weekend camping in the woods (though that’s an excellent idea), but finding larger, more remote walking trails within a half hour to an hour of where you live and taking the time at the weekend to go to them helps immensely.
This is something I definitely need to work on. I always reach my weekends feeling the urge to relax. And, while I know that going outside will make me feel far more relaxed than sitting at home, the idea of going out and driving feels so un-relaxing that I don’t want to bother.
My husband and I have recently decided to find somewhere new to go for a walk every weekend, from now until the snow starts (and hopefully beyond that – I’ve become intrigued by the Norwegian concept of friluftsliv, or embracing the weather and spending time outdoors even in the winter, thanks to Emma at Field and Nest). We’ve made it a commitment to each other, which makes either of us less likely to break it when the time comes. And by looking for new places, it’s exciting. It’s not the routine of getting in the car and driving to the same place; it’s spending weekdays looking for new trails and getting to try them out at the weekend. And, hopefully, building a bank of places we can head to and know we’ll enjoy when we need a walk.
Although I think seeking out green daily, and finding regular time for larger, more secluded blocks of time in nature, is the most important thing, there are a few other things I think it’s important to keep in mind.
First of all, ask yourself what you’re really seeking. For me, a lot of it is quiet and solitude, because I’m an introvert who often finds the bustle of the city overstimulating and stressful. Much as I love my new garden, I also like walking and exploring, finding new things to photograph even on a well-known path. For others, sitting with your friends and having a picnic in a busy park alongside half the city and a bus-ful of tourists might be exactly what you want. It’s helpful to know this in advance, as it will help you to figure out what sort of things to look for.
Secondly, I think it’s important for all of us to consider our expectations. I can’t expect to take a fifteen-minute walk out my front door and find myself breathing in the salt-sweet air of the Inner Hebrides or watching the light play across golden fields stretching out before me. I follow so many accounts on Instagram run by people who live in beautiful rural places, and it can be easy to feel like I’m missing out, because there’s simply no scenery like it here.
But just because I can’t take beautiful Instagrammable photos of the Peak District or rural Wales doesn’t mean I won’t be benefitting from a walk through the local city park or on a nature reserve. And if I remember that that is the true point of spending time in nature, I’ll get far more out of it than if I fall into the trap of comparing my opportunities to those who live very different lives.
Indeed, having lived with me for years in urban environments, my husband (who grew up in a very rural part of Scotland) thinks I’d get cabin fever living in the countryside. I’m not used to having to hop in the car because the fridge is empty, and there are no supermarkets nearby and no takeaways that deliver to me. I’m not willing to have a long commute so I can live somewhere beautiful only to be too tired to enjoy it. And, while I still nurture that dream of retiring on a remote part of Skye, I think for the time being, at least, he’s right.
Tell me, how do you bring some green into your urban life?