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You can’t be a human in most American cities

Elizabeth Bernstein in the Wall Street Journal has a piece on the underrated therapeutic benefits of water:

Most important: Water is dynamic. It moves rhythmically, producing a play of light, color and sound that is mesmerizing. It holds our attention, but not in an overly demanding way. Researchers call this soft fascination. It gives our brain a break from the intense, focused attention that much of daily life requires and that is cognitively depleting.

I read this around the same time as Henry David Thoreau’s ode to Walking. Thoreau got his best ideas while walking. Though to clarify, he meant walking in nature.

Much of this is depressing when you live in a city like Indianapolis as I do. There are no bodies of water you can safely get into at virtually any time of the year because of pollution. You can sneak your way into Eagle Creek, but lifeguards on the “beach” are only there for a few weeks of the summer. Geist Reservoir is surrounded by people who would call the police on anyone near their property. To say nothing of the dangerously cold temperatures much of the year.

There is not a lot of opportunity for most residents of most cities — particularly ones like Indianapolis — to practice “Shinrin-Yoku”, a Japanese word for “forest bathing”. Nearly everyone here and likely in most American cities are confined to traveling to nature. “Get in your car, drive an hour, and then you can park and sit in your car while you stare a tree” is the de facto method for American Shinrin-Yoku.

From a piece on forest bathing by Time:

Never have we been so far from merging with the natural world and so divorced from nature. By 2050, 66% of the world’s population is projected to live in cities. According to a study sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American spends 93% of his or her time indoors.

I increasingly resent living in such a hostile place to the very things that made humans what we are. It depresses me to no end to see mature trees cut down because someone wanted to replace it with grass, a parking lot, or nothing at all.

Cities can’t seem to grapple with the idea that people want to do more than just drive around, parking lot to parking lot. I snapped this photo yesterday of a trail that was not maintained at all:

Photo of the Indianapolis Pennsy Trail near Irvington in December 2022.
There’s a trail, grassy section with trees that keep getting destroyed, and a road somewhere in this photo. All under a mere 1″ of snow.

I refuse to believe this city — which spends nearly all of its money on public safety — can’t find the time, money, or personnel for someone to drive a trail-sized plow down any icy, snow-packed path of straight, clear, pavement.

In other words, in many American cities you can’t walk, you can’t swim, you can’t sit quietly, and you can’t even maintain line-of-sight with a respectably old tree.

No wonder so many people are fat, depressed, anxious, and incapable of doing anything but numbing their senses with drugs, alcohol, TV, sugar, or their phones.

We need a new, simpler way.

Mayoral races are starting up again here, and since it’s winter the perennial complaint about potholes will begin to inundate us all. Headlines will shout nothing but crime statistics, too.

I don’t believe an extra 200 or 300 police officers will change anything. As the state transportation department has shown over and over by closing long stretches of highways in the city: if you don’t need them for 18 months or more at a time, you don’t need it at all. I don’t think spending more on “new technology” or even most rehab facilities will do much to deter crime or other top-level issues that most people cite as foundational problems in their lives.

Instead of debating the difference between 100 more officers here or a tax credit there, we should be finding ways to solve for some of the simplest, most basic evolutionary human needs:

  • Protections for mature and old-growth trees that prohibit their removal unless a danger to human life, most likely because the tree is dead.
  • A ten-year plan for water pollution mitigation that would allow anyone to feel safe putting their feet in any creek, stream, river, or reservoir.
  • A focus on robust neighborhood trails, even if they’re dirt or gravel, to let people walk half an hour or more with little distraction from highways, motors, or heavy noise pollution above 60 decibels.
  • Densely pack larger parks with more trees, so that in 20-50 years people can have “mini forests” in more places. Ellenberger Park, as one example, consumes a huge space of several blocks with many old trees, but it’s not dense. Yet the distance between the trees prohibits anything but grass. So pack ‘em in so people can carve out new trails.

Ultimately, the goal should be to “re-wild” our cities in ways that let people do what humans evolved extraordinarily well to do: walk long distances, swim short distances, and be in nature.

That is something people can see, feel, and experience with more benefits for more people than another 100 police officers or another lane on a highway. It strikes me as cruel and inhumane that for most people in most places, nature is a thing you have to drive to, pay admission for like it’s a theme park, and likely experience a few times a year.

This isn’t a new or novel idea. We originally built our cities around large, grand parks or public spaces that allowed people to stay close to nature.


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About JUSTIN HARTER

Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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