Just a short walk down a New York City block inundates the senses. Buses rumble loudly and sirens blare at ear-splitting decibels. The alluring aroma of freshly baked bagels mingles with the sharp scent of trash. Lights blink: walk, don’t walk, red, green, as cars and pedestrians jostle for dominance. As much as we adore this vibrant city, sometimes we need a break from its constant barrage of stimuli.
In Japan, the practice of shinrin-yoku—forest bathing, or “bathing in the forest atmosphere”—was developed in the 1980s as a public-health program to address feelings of urban overload and worker burnout in densely populated cities. Spending time in nature has myriad benefits. And for harried New Yorkers, access to this “ecotherapy” is available first and foremost through our urban greenspaces.
A PLACE OF PEACE
Ask Brooke Mellen about her transition from busy New York City executive to curator of forest-bathing experiences and she explains it this way: “I’ve learned through spending time in nature that things evolve slowly. I started this journey as part of a self-healing process. It also became a way to empower myself through inspiring others.”
The journey has been both long-gestating and quick to progress. Within six months of leaving her art-insurance job in 2019, Brooke had traveled to Japan—the birthplace of shinrin-yoku—the Netherlands, Finland, and Australia to learn about forest-bathing practices in local environments, including Tasmania’s eucalyptus trees. She earned her certification in forest medicine in Japan and soon launched her passion project, Cultured Forest, which works with individuals, communities, and corporate groups to harness both health and inspiration in nature. Some key locales in her transformation, however, lay closer to home.
“A lot of people don’t know there are full-on small forests in Central Park,” Brooke notes. “It’s like this heart at the center of the huge humming, drumming beast of New York City.”
—Kaitlin Holt, Associate Director of Interpretation and Programs, Central Park Conservancy
“It’s amazing how therapeutic it can be when you find new ways to engage with the natural world.”
AN URBAN SANCTUARY
Greenspaces like Central Park naturally invite us to pause, rest, and play. Forest bathing gently introduces deeper levels of engagement, cultivating mindful awareness through guided meditation, sensory exploration, and attention to small discoveries: the many colors of green, the texture of a tree’s bark, a scent in the air, a mushroom sprouting in the soil. The experience draws on all five senses. Traditional shinrin-yoku also emphasizes forest fragrance as a kind of natural aromatherapy.
The designers of Central Park, in fact, intuitively grasped the need for some semblance of wilderness within the City to offer residents relief from the pressures of urban life. Inspired by forest landscapes in upstate New York, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux created woodland areas like the Ramble and North Woods as places of refuge, with dense vegetation, rustic bridges, and meandering paths and streams. Brooke says they’re ideal places for immersion in forest canopies, as is the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, an intimate enclave just steps away from Midtown’s bustling cabs, streets, and soaring skyscrapers.
Today, the Central Park Conservancy continues Olmsted and Vaux’s original vision for the Park through its care of these woodland landscapes, allowing the busy New Yorker in search of a moment of Zen to find just that in the middle of Manhattan.
“I don’t know if the founders of the Conservancy knew the term ‘forest bathing,’” says Kaitlin Holt, Associate Director of Interpretation and Programs. “But they clearly understood the Park’s potential as a space for wellbeing and rejuvenation. It’s right there in our mission statement, which is to ‘preserve and celebrate Central Park as a sanctuary from the pace and pressures of city life.’” The Conservancy’s staff of more than 300 includes teams of arborists, gardeners, and natural areas technicians that expertly maintain and set these landscapes up for success during a time of unprecedented Park use—for the benefit of the human and nonhuman animals that have come to rely on this space.
The Conservancy’s work is palpable to visitors who experience its benefits in the City’s most eminent park. “It’s a place of peace,” says Brooke. “It’s beautifully tended, lovingly taken care of, and thoughtfully planned out. And it’s available to everyone.”
The overall benefits of forest bathing have been scientifically measured in multiple studies. Some research points to its ability to lower blood pressure, heart rate, anxiety, and cortisol levels (a stress marker). Other studies show how forest bathing can boost practitioners’ concentration and attention. Trees and plants also emit antimicrobial substances called phytoncides, which studies suggest may help boost the immune system. With feelings of burnout at an all-time high and concerns about the climate crisis causing widespread anxiety, the need to reap the benefits of the natural world has perhaps never been more acute.
Yet for many New Yorkers, heading into the Park to simply experience what nature has to offer might seem overwhelming; where does one even begin, especially when confronted with the 843 acres of dense forests, sprawling lawns, and cultivated gardens that make up Central Park? If you find yourself feeling the call of the couch more than the call of the wild, you’re not alone.
In 2016 Nicole and Oskar Elmgart were living in Battery Park, working as an attorney and investment banker, when they grew concerned that their young boys weren’t getting outdoors much. Often, their kids were resistant to the idea of leaving indoor amenities behind. “There’s been a real shift with this indoor generation, where kids grow up on screens and they’re not developing in different ways by being outside,” says Nicole.
Exposing children to the innate benefits of nature motivated the Elmgarts to start down the path that became Treebath, a New York–based provider of forest therapy and training programs. Like Brooke, Nicole was deeply intrigued by the idea of forest bathing after she noticed it as an item on a spa menu. “I thought, ‘I’ve never heard of this—I have to know what this is!’” she recalls. “I thought it was a hot tub or bath in the woods.”
Driven by her interest in health and wellness, Nicole delved deeper into the subject. Oskar, meanwhile, found inspiration in an outdoor program for kids in his native Sweden. Combining their interests, they earned their certification as forest-bathing guides and began making use of greenspaces all around the City.
Over time, their approach to forest therapy has evolved to incorporate aspects of shinrin-yoku, Scandinavian philosophies, mindfulness practices, and mental health strategies. Yet the idea of simply getting outside and discovering nature remains at the heart of the Elmgarts’ work. Treebath’s program for children, for instance, includes games such as “Life under a log,” where kids explore and learn through an organic process of discovery. “They learn—without us explaining what diversity is—that oh, there’s this snail and it’s with a rolly bug, and that’s his food, which fertilizes the ground. And they’re all working together,” says Nicole.
“It’s amazing how therapeutic it can be when you find new ways to engage with the natural world,” says the Conservancy’s Kaitlin Holt. “When I’m planning new tours and events, I always think about how they’ll impact a visitor’s experience of both the Park and nature. A birding tour, for instance, can teach you to see and hear in new ways. A foliage tour can provide insights about trees and leaves that might come back to you in the future when sitting on a Park bench or near a tree on one of our lawns. A wildflower walk can remind you how important it is to stop and smell the flowers.”
GEARING UP TO SLOW DOWN
Brooke attests to the impact of taking time to appreciate nature’s bountiful offerings. “Being able to take people through these experiences has been incredibly rewarding because I know what it was like to be stressed out and how much it helped me to slow down,” she says.
“Central Park is like the heart at the center of the huge humming, drumming beast of New York City. It’s beautifully tended, lovingly taken care of, and thoughtfully planned out. And it’s available to everyone.”
Oskar Elmgart shares a similar sentiment. “I love being outside, being a part of nature and whatever happens there,” he says. “You’re in the flow: If it rains on me, it’s raining on me. If the wind blows or I see animals, I’m a part of it.”
Sometimes, the practice of mindful engagement in the Park and other urban greenspaces can even verge on the miraculous.
Nicole recalls a particularly poignant experience that greeted a Treebath group one winter morning. Leading a gathering of international business graduates, she and Oskar set off early from West 72nd Street into Central Park ahead of a big snowstorm. By the time they reached the Ramble, flakes had started to fall.
“We go through each of the five senses, and one that’s often challenging is taste,” she says. “When we put out our tongues to taste snow, one person said they had never even seen snow before. By the time we finished our walk, the Park was covered in a silent blanket of white. It was just so magical.”
Luna Shyr is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Atlas Obscura, the Associated Press, and The Wall Street Journal.
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Tags: Summer / Conservancy Staff / Pollinators / About the Conservancy / Trees / Institute for Urban Parks
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Tags: Conservancy Staff / Pollinators / About the Conservancy / Nature Lovers
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Tags: Conservancy Staff / Park Design / Spring / Flowers / Nature Lovers