In Conversation with Author Florence Williams on the Benefits of Nature

It’s no exaggeration to say that city parks are having their moment. Amidst a global pandemic that has kept many feeling restless and isolated, these outdoor spaces foster a sense of normalcy and community when we need it most.

A visit to Central Park is living proof. Typically packed with a mix of locals and tourists, the Park feels uniquely New York these days, and as vibrant as ever. While our visitors lovingly refer to the Park as their respite, sanctuary, and oasis, there’s actually a science to what makes greenspace feel so good.

The experience of Central Park—from the sounds of rustling leaves and chirping birds and the details of rippling water and swaying plants to the scenes of large open meadows and woodland glades—has a profound effect on our mental health, and even more so, our sense of belonging.

To learn about this phenomenon in Central Park, Marie Warsh, the Conservancy’s historian, talked with author and journalist Florence Williams. Florence’s fascinating, thorough, and oftentimes hilarious book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative explores the vital importance of greenspace and our intrinsic, human need to get outside.

Marie Warsh: You grew up in New York City and spent a lot of time in Central Park as a child. Do you have any specific memories here?

Florence Williams: I grew up on 89th and Amsterdam, so I was fortunate to be smack in the middle of two parks: Riverside Park and Central Park. There was a period, starting in about sixth grade, where I bicycled through Central Park several times a week. The Park was a place I associated with adventure and fun; it was the place to go. To this day it’s really one of my favorite places.

In fact, there’s a bench dedicated to my mother in Central Park that is maintained by the Conservancy. After she died, we put up a plaque for her that spoke to her love for democracy and the idea that so many different walks of life would walk by and sit on her bench, and hopefully make time for reflection. I just can't think of a more perfect way to honor her, and I am very appreciative of that.

Portrait of Florence Williams shot outdoors with trees in the background

Florence Williams enjoying the calming, nurturing effects of fractal patterns in trees. “When we experience something beautiful, something larger than ourselves, it makes us feel more connected to other people,” she says. Photo by Sue Barr

At the Conservancy, we've been thinking a lot about the relationship between immersion in nature, reflection, and its effect on our mental health, especially during this extraordinarily stressful time. Why is being outside so important? And why now more than ever?

Most people have a relationship to nature where they appreciate it and are glad it's there, but not until a time of crisis do they realize how much they turn to it or how restorative it can be. After 9/11, people from the City flocked to Sheep Meadow for comfort. We saw something similar in New Orleans, too, after Hurricane Katrina.

In times like these—either personal crises or collective crises—I'm really interested in the concept of “urgent biophilia.” People who study ecosystem resilience and human psychological resilience define urgent biophilia as the action of turning to nature when we are very stressed. Something about being in nature calms our nervous system and reduces our stress hormones. Being in nature encourages us to take deeper breaths and live in the present moment, which is essential for mental health.

Not only do we find stress relief and comfort in nature, but we also find metaphors. After a fire, flood, tornado, or some other tragedy, things grow back. It's a great reminder that humans are part of these cycles of nature, and that we too are resilient.

The Sheep Meadow in spring, pictured empty of park visitors

In the wake of 9/11, many New Yorkers visited Sheep Meadow in Central Park for solace.

At the start of the pandemic, the City became so quiet and all of a sudden we were hearing birds and other sounds that are typically drowned out. Many of us found this new auditory experience quite enjoyable. As you discuss in your book, these sounds affect our brains. Can you speak more to that phenomenon?

Psychologists are interested in nature because they believe it provides sounds that are interesting, but not distracting. These sounds—like birds chirping and water trickling—pull us out of the negative thoughts in our brains, but not in a way that is overstimulating. Living in any normal city with noxious traffic, sounds, and smells can overwhelm us to the point that we want to shut these stimuli out.

Nature does the opposite: it makes us want to open our senses. I think that's something that many of us city dwellers really appreciated this spring when some of the noxious elements of living in a city receded.

In some ways, it was lucky that the pandemic coincided with the onset of springtime, at least in our region of the world. Springtime is a very dynamic, optimistic season. There's so much going on in the landscape: the birds are flying in, the bugs are coming out, and these cycles of nature are continuing. It’s comforting.

There was also this literal sense that being outside was safe. And for many, many millennia, humans have felt the safety of the natural world; we're programmed to feel that security outdoors. But because so many of us live in cities now, we don't associate nature with safety. With the strange circumstances of this pandemic, we were able to access those innate feelings again.

Park-goers, masked, alone on a stroll

When the coronavirus pandemic began, New Yorkers visited one of the only places they could go: Central Park. Seen here, masked visitors walk near the Reservoir.

I recently looked back to the writings of [Park co-designer] Frederick Law Olmsted and found it remarkable how forward-thinking he was about the connection between nature, health, and city living. But his theories were more intuitive and influenced by Romanticism. He did not really know the science behind it.

I think Olmsted was very perceptive. He talked about nature as being important for convalescence, and he even put up posters at doctors’ offices that said things like “tell your patients to recover in nature.” Olmsted also recognized that these public greenspaces were critical for democracy because people of all walks of life could find restoration in these spaces.

During the 1918 flu pandemic, the patients in open-air hospitals recovered more quickly. Florence Nightingale championed fresh air and sunlight for patients, and right now there are hospitals in Spain that are wheeling recovering COVID patients to the beach to connect to the outdoors.

We need this generation of doctors to recognize that nature can be a major tool to address common ailments from obesity to anxiety to depression. It turns out that being in nature can be a significant piece of that treatment. It’s something we've forgotten in western, modern medicine. So many of our doctors and medical students themselves are very disconnected from the outside world.

Unfortunately, our society tends to think of nature as a luxury instead of a necessity. This surely must influence this disconnect with nature. In your book, you relate this to “nature deficit disorder.” How do you think we got to this place?

Somewhere along the line, nature got connected to wealth—something seen as an amenity, not a necessity. This has been a great tragedy because it means there are so many populations that don't have the access to nature that we now recognize is fundamentally important to mental health.

We’ve also simply forgotten how to be outside and how to open our senses. In fact, when many of us do go outside now, we have our earbuds in or we’re somehow multitasking in that space, because that's what we're programmed to do.

To break this habit, when you're walking in a city park, ask yourself "What birds am I hearing? What fractal patterns can I see in the trees? Is there a nearby creek where I can see waves and ripples and watch the sunlight?” These are cues that can bring you back to the present.

A woman wearing brain-scanning apparatus sits in a mountain glen

To compile research for The Nature Fix, Florence worked with scientists to measure brain waves and physical reactions when immersed in greenspaces. Photo by Scott Carrier

Something so unique to Central Park is the immersive and dynamic experience of nature, which is made possible by having many types of landscapes in a relatively small amount of space. Does this variety in landscape make a difference in how we experience nature?

Our connections and relationships to nature vary by individuals, but they also vary by need and time. Some days we need space for quiet reflection, and maybe that means wandering through the Ramble to get lost and see the bigger picture. There are times when we really need more social bonding, which may mean a stroll along the Mall, that even if taken alone, is still in community with humanity at large. That can be really comforting.

One thing that really interests me is the idea of awe. When we experience something beautiful, something larger than ourselves, it makes us feel more connected to other people.

Scientists have done studies where they’ll show subjects photographs of jumping whales or waterfalls. Then they'll show other subjects photographs of a shopping mall or a parking lot. The people who have seen the beautiful nature photos are more likely to give away lottery tickets and they play better on teams—in psychology terms, they act more pro-socially.

Looking up through a branch of autumn leaves

Fractal patterns, like those found in leaves, are not only pleasing to the eye but ultimately, comforting to the psyche. Just standing under or looking at this Central Park maple tree, which turns bright yellow in the fall, can help reduce stress levels and heart rates.

When I started bird-watching during the pandemic, it was a reminder of all these other cycles, that there's so much more of the world that exists beyond my limited experience of it. Is that the sense of awe you’re speaking about?

The theory really gets into what Maslow talked about in terms of transformation and human transcendence. When we experience something that makes us feel a bit smaller and less significant as an individual, it magically makes our lives improve. Many religions completely understand this phenomenon, which is why we have beautiful cathedrals.

There’s also this idea of collective effervescence. When we experience something beautiful together, like looking at that eclipse a couple of years ago, we forget our individual problems and we feel part of this collective enterprise that gives us more faith in humanity. We are reminded that we're not alone.

When you think about it, this pandemic really demands that we come together and take care of each other. Through experiences like collective effervescence, we enhance our ability to solve social problems, to have empathy for people. Nature is good for civilization.

While proximity to parks and greenspace bolsters our health and sense of community, not everyone has equal access to these spaces. What are your thoughts about how to address these issues of equity?

It’s important to get the evidence to policymakers and to medical schools. I’ve seen some parks partnering with healthcare institutions, which is very exciting. For example, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy is partnering with hospitals around Oakland and San Francisco to help get more youth, especially those living in cities, into these regional parks.

In schools, children need more recess and access to greener schoolyards, as well as field and science-based education. If we want the next generation to value greenspaces and take care of them, if we want to build their conservation ethics, they first need that connection.

We also need neighborhood and city planners to recognize that greenspace is important. In countries like Singapore, which has incredibly dense urban spaces, there are miles of green corridors, and they have parks and courtyards in public housing projects. Greenspace is not just an amenity for the wealthy in these countries.

New York City has had some great mayors and parks commissioners who have developed high quality parks outside of Manhattan, but this is still where democracy comes into play. None of this stuff is going to happen without pressure from parents, families, and neighborhoods. We must be getting these messages out so that we can all realize how important these spaces are.

Florence as a child in the Canadian wilderness

Accessible greenspaces are vital to a child’s emotional well-being. Seen here, a young Florence explores the Canadian wilderness. Photo by John Williams

It’s interesting how crises can compel us to act in more serious and dramatic ways, and I even feel a bit hopeful that this moment will push us to recognize the importance of greenspace. There's no question that we’ve been provided an opportunity to relearn our connection to the natural world and to regain a sense of appreciation for nearby nature.

Yes, and we don't just have to travel to a national park to experience it. I used to be a snob about nature. I thought “nature” meant an uncrowded mountaintop with wild animals prancing about. But after some practice, I have learned how to find these moments of restoration, peace, and sensory immersion right here in the City.

In fact, it's more important to improve the quality and access that we have to city nature because that is where 70% of Americans live today.

We’ve seen more crowds in Central Park and in parks across the City this year, and this increased use is putting pressure on parks, necessitating additional maintenance at a time when parks budgets are being cut. How have you seen cities react to this challenge?

On one hand we need to be building more parks, but also protecting the infrastructure around parks that already exist. A major social pitfall of greening up areas is that gentrification can come with it. This is a harmful phenomenon that we need to figure out, and there are many organizations and communities working on that. The Trust for Public Land has mapped what they call “park deserts” in major cities in America. This map shows how many people don’t live within a 10-minute walk of a park, which turns out to be 100 million Americans. So we have this science and data to understand where we should put our resources and efforts, and which parts of cities need bigger, more accessible parks.

As a country we’ve talked about how we need stockpiles of PPE and masks and ventilators, but I believe that we also need stockpiles of nature. These spaces are a safety valve for urban stresses, and it's more critical than ever that we have these spaces protected and made available to more people. We can't have functional cities without beautiful, maintained greenspaces.

The skyline reflected on the water of the Reservoir, at dusk

To practice grounding herself in nature, Florence often looks to the nighttime sky for a moment of humility and awe. The Reservoir in Central Park is an excellent place for this type of reflection.

How do you get your “nature fix” now?

Practically every single night I take my dog with me and walk to this one spot where I can see the sunset. It's become my nightly ritual, and I love it because it gives me this sense of space, but it also makes me feel more connected to these daily cycles of nature. The other incredibly cool thing about this routine is that I see the same people there every night. We’re like this collective enterprise and now we know each other's names and have a bond. It’s still socially distanced, but I have enjoyed the civic enterprise of it.

I’ve also been paying more attention to the cycles of the moon. It’s comforting to know that no matter where you are, you can pretty much always see the moon. We can’t always see the Milky Way from most places anymore, which is a tragedy, but we can still get a sense that we're part of a greater universe and that we all live under the same sky.

Florence Williams is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, and Outside magazine. She is currently writing a book on the relationship between nature, wilderness, and trauma. Learn more about Florence and her research at her website and read her book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.

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