Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
Access to parks, nature, and wildlife is critical for physical and emotional well-being. Now some city dwellers sheltered at home must find it in new ways.
Danny Leong knows how to find nature in unexpected places. A Ph.D. candidate studying entomology and urban ecology in Macau, he earned the moniker of “Macau Ant Man” in 2017, after discovering a new species of the insect in the most densely peopled region on earth.
That knack for hidden wildlife will be handy when Leong leads his hometown into the City Nature Challenge next month. For three days every April, the global event encourages regular people to look for wildlife in their communities and post observations onto the app iNaturalist, netting everything from daddy long-legs and dogwood trees to rare orchids and red-faced warblers. Species are then tallied up for each city. Since 2018, Leong has coordinated Macau schools, museums, and universities to get locals, especially children, hunting in nearby parks and gardens.
But this year will be different. As in cities around the world, the 650,000 residents of Macau are restricted from non-essential trips outside their homes, in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. (So far, the Chinese territory has been strikingly successful in that fight.) In a tight, vertical city where windowsills and balconies are the closest thing most residents have to a yard, that means this year’s Nature Challenge will have to scale down to whatever can be found in an apartment — even if it’s a bug under the sink, or a houseplant basking in the sun.
“This is a good time for self-modification about how we can reach nature,” Leong said. “A cockroach is still part of the ecosystem, too.”
The City Nature Challenge is one of many ways that people around the world are shifting their relationship to the natural environment at a time when access to shared outdoor space has rarely been so fraught. In many countries, forests and recreational areas have closed to the public in keeping with quarantines. Out-of-neighborhood travel is discouraged or even banned, canceling plans for springtime camping trips or cabin visits. Though most shelter-at-home orders allow for outdoor exercise, questions still swirl about the safety of visiting public areas. In some cities, popular parks and beaches have shut their gates after large crowds proved dangerous for public health. A recent New York Times headline summed up “the new terror, and the intensifying debate, over going outside.”
But for some scientists, researchers, and stay-at-home civilians, the pandemic age may also be a chance to shift perceptions of what “nature” really means, and find new, hyper-local ways to appreciate it.
“If just a few people find some joy or solace from getting up close with a pollinator out the window or a weed in the sidewalk, and learning what it is and how it works, the City Nature Challenge is still going to be a success,” said Lila Higgins, the citizen science manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. (Disclosure: the author of this article used to work there.) Higgins and Alison Young, who works on citizen science at the California Academy of the Sciences in San Francisco, founded the event in 2016. Both plan to encourage participants in their cities to go outside if they can, but to practice safe social distancing while they’re at it. If they can’t, there’s always whatever is flying or growing outside the window.
The plan for continuing the Challenge came out of extensive deliberation. It became clear through talks with dozens of science educators around the world, including those quarantined early on in China, that while the focus would have to shift, it was important that the event still go on. “Now it’s really all about the healing power of nature,” Higgins said.
Indeed, at a time when the mental health effects of mass isolation and anxiety over a rising death toll are still unmeasured and unknown, experts say it’s more important than ever to get up close with nature in whatever way possible. Volumes of scientific research have proven that woods and wildlife offer myriad mental and physical health benefits to human beings. Vitamin D from the sunshine boosts immune systems and bone health. Immersion in greenery — also know as “forest bathing” — has been linked to reduced stress, healthier heart rates and blood pressure, and lower risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Interacting with the natural world, whether on a walk through some trees or gardening in the backyard, is shown to ease anxiety and depression and foster a sense of well-being. Watching birds and listening to bird song can help filter away stress. An after-dinner stroll can even help digestion.
And though the “great outdoors” may be more distant than ever right now, small and mediated exposure to nature can still give us a lift, said Jon Christensen, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. Even photos of tree-lined mountains and wildlife documentaries can yield a health payoff; so can sitting in a park for 20 minutes. “There does seem to be a dose-response curve,” he said.
Around the world, people stuck at home are now finding ways to connect with flora and fauna in more intimate settings. In U.S. cities, World War II-era “victory gardens” have made a comeback amid coronavirus, thanks to the meditative (and supermarket-avoidance) benefits of planting tomatoes and lettuce at home. A similar run on backyard chickens has been reported. Other nature seekers are getting their fix online. On Explore.org, a website that hosts streaming footage from cameras pointed at hundreds of natural habitats and landscapes around the globe, traffic from desktop computers has doubled since mid-March, and viewership from its iPhone app has grown threefold. (The Northern Lights, which are visible right now, are especially popular.)
The audience spike suggests that more younger people are tuning in while they’re cooped up at home, said Charles Annenberg Weingarten, the L.A. philanthropist who founded the site. “I anticipate that when this ends, people will go back out into the world and we might not be as popular,” he said. “But I hope they’ll appreciate their natural environment more.”
In many urban areas, street space is the most readily accessible outdoor resource. A growing handful of U.S. cities, including Portland, Philadelphia, and New York City, are limiting vehicle traffic on certain corridors to create more room for walking, cycling, and outdoor play. Eugenia South, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in the effects of community context on health and safety, is a proponent of street closures as an antidote to dangerous overcrowding in parks. Even the trees that line neighborhood blocks and thoroughfares can be good for mental health, she said. “You’re still getting outside and getting that dose of nature.”
Still, South said, limiting access to nature is one of many ways that coronavirus is heightening existing social disparities. Lower-income people are less likely to have yards, neighborhood parks within walking distance, or tree-lined streets to enjoy; that puts them at a deeper disadvantage in cities under lockdown.
South and others hope that the crisis can shake policymakers into doing more to bridge those gaps in green space, and into doing more to protect the fragile balance of their ecosystems in the future. Scientists find that a diversity of species in nature is essential for the health of the air, water and soil on which all of life depends. There’s even evidence that biodiversity — something that the planet is losing every day — can reduce the chances for the spread of infectious disease.
In that sense, nature may hold another lesson about surviving coronavirus, said Leong: Treat plants and animals with more respect. Using eyes, ears, nose or a camera to observe a living thing is a more peaceful interaction than catching or harming its habitat.
“We still don’t know the full connection between animals and plants and virus and us,” said Leong. “But we do know from ecology that if you break down one part of a system, it will collapse.”