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Cities don’t just need parks–they need big, wild ones

Meaningful experiences of urban nature are linked to parks’ “wildness”
March 3, 2020

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Urban green space improves people’s mental health and well-being: by now, this is a well-accepted proposition, with plenty of research to back it up. Based on this connection, cities are sprinkling pocket parks and green roofs throughout the urban mosaic.

But is this enough? A new study suggests that city dwellers also need access to large, relatively unmanaged parks in order to get the fullest benefits from urban nature.

Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle invited visitors to Discovery Park – Seattle’s largest park, a 500-acre expanse on the city’s western edge – to submit online comments about a meaningful experience they had with nature in the park.

They analyzed comments from 320 people to identify “Interaction Patterns” in the narratives. These are abstracted descriptions of human-nature interactions, usually expressed as a present progressive verb (+ preposition) + nature noun, such as “sitting beside water,” “watching birds,” and so on.

The idea is that the same Interaction Patterns can occur in different geographical locations and types of green space, although the specifics will vary. Researchers are increasingly using this concept to understand how people connect with nature in cities, and to design urban spaces that will facilitate and deepen these connections.

The comments from study participants included a total of 520 Interaction Patterns, and 331 distinct ones, the researchers reported January 29 in Frontiers in Sustainable Cities. They clustered the Interaction Patterns into categories, the most common of which were encountering wildlife, following trails, walking to destination spots in nature, gazing at vistas such as mountains or water, walking along edges of beach or bluffs, and walking with dogs.

For example, more than a quarter of all the Interaction Patterns found in the narratives were about encountering wildlife, and more than one-fifth of participants mentioned following trails in the park.

The researchers also analyzed which Interaction Patterns were especially meaningful to visitors, and those that were linked to positive psychological experiences such as relaxation, happiness, or wonder.

Finally, they considered which Interaction Patterns depended on the relative wildness of Discovery Park. Of course, no urban park is really “wilderness” (fraught as that term may be). But like many other large urban parks, Discovery Park contains features like varied habitats, relatively unmanaged land, high levels of biodiversity, old-growth trees, large open spaces and wide vistas, and opportunities for visitors to experience solitude and a sense of remove from civilization.

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More than three-quarters of all the Interaction Patterns that participants described were linked to the park’s relative wildness, the researchers found. “Of the participants who noted an especially meaningful experience with nature, 95% of them had an interaction that depended on Discovery Park’s relative wildness,” they write. Among those who described an experience linked to a positive psychological state, 96% had an interaction that depended on wildness.

Or, to get more concrete about it: you wouldn’t be likely to see a bald eagle fishing in a pocket park, or birds perched in an old growth tree in a roof garden.

The study participants were largely White and affluent, reflecting the demographics of the neighborhood surrounding the park. Future studies should focus more specifically on the urban nature experiences of people of color, the researchers say. Nevertheless, they argue that their results would likely hold for many large, relatively wild urban parks.

The results have implications for the future of Discovery Park. The growth of cities puts ever increasing pressure on their open space, creating a “tension—between wanting large urban parks to remain undeveloped, while wanting to develop some of the open space in these parks to address other pressing urban needs,” the researchers write. In fact, Seattle is moving forward with plans to redevelop a portion of Discovery Park for housing.

“But does developing that land lead to largely unrecognized costs in terms of human well-being and human flourishing?” they ask. Their results, they argue, suggests that the answer is yes.

Source: Lev E. et al.Relatively wild urban parks can promote human resilience and flourishing: A case study of Discovery Park, Seattle, Washington.” Frontiers in Sustainable Cities 2020. 

Image: Hikers in Seattle’s Discovery Park. Credit: Seattle Parks and Recreation.

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