Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
“Nothing is harder to do than nothing.” So begins How to Do Nothing, a book by artist and critic Jenny Odell that examines how to reclaim your attention in a world that asks for more of it each day.
I gobbled the book up recently after a friend pointedly gifted it to me, suggesting I could benefit from learning to stop every once in a while. The book doesn’t exactly lay out a five-point plan for doing “nothing,” but Odell does have some tips to help you get there, which include: Noticing nature, and appreciating it.
I just moved to Oakland, where I’m trying to make that kind of noticing a habit. It’s not that hard: Every flower I meet on my morning commute still feels foreign and fresh and ebbs with new-home magic.
But Odell, who lives in Oakland, too, encourages diverging from those routines to seek out oases off the beaten path. So last weekend, I decided to visit her favorite local haunt, the Morcom Rose Garden. To get there, I biked to a bustling farmer’s market, then ascended sloping hills on foot. I arrived, flushed and sweat-soaked, to find what Odell calls architecture that “wants you to stay awhile.”
Labyrinthine paths unfurled, hugged by roses. Down one, a wild turkey preened to impress a mate. Down another, a teenager took quinceañera photographs beside a glowing fountain, sprinkled with pale pink buds. Three miles from my house, I’d found another, calmer, world.
Getting out of the city and into somewhere green is good for your mental health, recent studies suggest. But there are plenty of green spaces within city limits, too. In D.C., my favorite was Wangari Gardens, where I’d pick leeks from the communal veggie plots. In the New York town where I grew up, I’d watch ice floes drift along the Hudson.
Once you find your place, though, what Odell suggests doing isn’t nothing, after all. It’s listening for the gruff sound of a turkey dragging its tail in the dirt; or stopping to smell a particularly red blossom, and locking eyes with a friendly volunteer gardener.
“There’s something important that the moment of stopping to listen has in common with the labyrinthine quality of attention-holding architecture,” she writes. “In their own ways, each enacts some kind of interruption, a removal from the sphere of familiarity.”
What we’re writing:
What to do in Atlanta’s new food forest: Forage. ¤ Tourists ruin a lot, but famously radioactive Chernobyl can’t get any worse. ¤ Gated communities create an obstacle course for Delhi’s late-night wanderers. ¤ Meet the sign-painters of Mexico City, and the designer behind New York City’s new park signs. ¤ In this traffic garden, kids rule the streets ¤
What we’re taking in:
Guerrilla artists in Spain are creating green space atop parked cars (Fast Company) ¤ Want a glimpse of San Francisco’s indestructible soul? Watch “The Last Black Man In San Francisco” (New York Times) ¤ With more thru-hikers navigating by app, what was once the “ultimate test of self-reliance is no longer as wild as it once was.”(Outside) ¤ An ode to the architecture of the public skate park (Curbed) ¤ Each elegant harp made at this Chicago workshop is constructed by 35 hands (Chicago Mag) ¤ Drag queens rule the world: “We’re talking straight, gay, black, white. We’re talking everybody.” (New York Magazine) ¤ Reflections on Hong Kong’s extradition protests, written from prison (Time) ¤ There’s a black market for vintage Kool-Aid packet collectors! (The Takeout) ¤
View from the ground:
@kreshna visited a “Floating Park” in Ciracas, Jakarta. @matmazela relaxed in the grass in Dumbo, Brooklyn. @npochar gathered with friends in Grant Park, Atlanta. @axlaxlaxlaxlaxl highlighted an urban park in Casablanca, Morocco.
Where’s your favorite green spot in your city? Tag your photos with the hashtag #citylabontheground and we'll feature it on CityLab’s Instagram page or pull them together for the next edition of Navigator.