In May, my partner and I had a daily ritual: he would send me a photo of the robin’s nest taking shape above the front door of his parents’ house, where he was sheltering in place. At first, it was more a pile of twigs than a structure, but slowly, it transformed into a woven bowl. Blue eggs appeared, and then chirping baby birds. A robin nested in that same spot the year before, but we were too busy to take such close stock, to notice the changes happening just outside the door.
For many people, the outside world has shrunk in the last three months. City-dwellers, with their notoriously cramped apartments and negligible backyard space, may feel especially cut-off from nature. But staying home during the first pandemic in over a century presents a unique opportunity to become better acquainted with wilderness in all its forms. Walk around the block, and you can behold scraggly neighborhood trees, birds roosting in apartment balconies, snails thriving in untended plots; under our sustained attention, these signs of life can begin to challenge our collective perception of what counts as nature.
“Americans are uniquely tied to the definition of nature as ‘wide open spaces,'” says Dr Kathleen Wolf, who studies the psychological and economic benefits of urban green spaces. Wolf argues nature is a social construct, a concept that differs widely across history, cultures, and nations. In the US, big nature – reserves and national parks – is often literally gatekept, available to those with the ability to travel and pay entrance fees.
Now, as health officials advise against all non-essential travel, Americans are seeing nature where they haven’t before. “Urban nature is a key part of resilience during disasters, this one included,” says Dr Timon McPhearson, an urban ecologist and director of the Urban Systems Lab in New York City. McPhearson is referring to the idea that humans seek out green spaces in times of tragedy and grief; in her 2017 talk How to Do Nothing, which evolved into a bestselling book by the same title, artist and author Jenny Odell explains that after the 2016 election, she found herself visiting her neighborhood rose garden every day.
McPhearson’s ongoing research into how individuals are responding to the Covid-19 crisis indicates that people are visiting green spaces more often than they did before. However, visiting public parks can be a challenge for many city residents. In the US, structural racism has shaped the way American cities are designed and dictated which communities have reliable access to nature: in New Orleans and Houston, poor, minority populations disproportionately live in hot, flood-prone areas with little access to parks, while green infrastructure is prioritized in white, wealthy neighborhoods.
Even for those confined to city apartments, nature is never far away. New York City-based writer Jesi Taylor Cruz recently challenged her partner to guess the age of the tree in front of their apartment. The dare led her to the New York City Street Tree Map, which documents each street tree in the city, including how much stormwater it intercepts, energy it conserves and air pollutants it removes each year. The parks departments of many cities in America have built similar tools for urban citizen scientists to explore.
As cities have been instructed to shelter in place, many renters have sought comfort in activities that merely require a window or a stoop – like birdwatching, gardening and even regrowing vegetable scraps on windowsills.
Fixing our gaze outward and learning to intentionally observe our surroundings can reveal even more intricate signs of wildlife. Dr Susannah Lerman, a research ecologist at the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, says we can still witness complex ecological processes like predator-prey dynamics, plant-insect interactions and lifecycle events near our homes. Study sidewalk greenery for foraging squirrels, pollen-collecting bees, and rainstorm-escaping earthworms. Activities as mundane as cloud gazing or noticing a spiderweb indoors “count” as interacting with nature, according to Dr Michelle Johnson, another research ecologist – and they have well-documented health benefits. Johnson suggests making a nature journal to document how natural space, however small, changes over time.
If our collective definition of nature starts to shift, so could the course of future city-planning. McPhearson hopes skyrocketing park use and heightened interest in outdoor activities will inform decisions “to invest, plan and build more nature into our cities” in more equitable ways. Mainstream conservation efforts, which today are funded by mostly white, affluent donors, skew public perception of what nature is valuable and who should be able to have access to it.
Reveling in the grubby wildernesses near our homes can make it harder to cling to this older, purer definition of nature, epitomized by National Geographic covers. If we continue to defend the immediate wilderness that surrounds us as equally worthy of care, maybe city budgets will follow.