Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Nature Therapy Is a Privilege

by Julie Beck, CityLab: https://www.citylab.com/environment/2017/06/how-to-harness-natures-healing-power/531453/

I am in the mountains and they are healing me. It is like the miracle pool at Lourdes except it’s not a miracle and we’re not at Lourdes. We’re at Maroon Bells, which depending on which website you ask, are the most photographed mountains in Aspen, in Colorado, or in North America. I photograph them some more, to help them hold onto their title.

The mountains, and their attendant plant life and water features, are helping to lower my blood pressure, and my stress hormones, and keeping my heart rate variability normal. These are just some of the health benefits of spending time in nature that studies have found in recent years. But this beautiful, soothing environment is fairly remote—its nearest neighbor is the wealthy enclave of Aspen. Back home, I don’t see anything like this on a regular basis. And neither do most people.

“Intuitively, many of us believe this to be true, that we feel better in nature. But it’s only recently that we’ve been able to see biomarkers of this change,” says Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix. She is a member of the panel that is currently holding forth on nature’s health benefits, fittingly, in an outdoor amphitheater right by the Bells, as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.

As the empirical evidence mounts, nature-as-medical-treatment is catching on. “Ecotherapy” is a burgeoning field, and some doctors even write prescriptions for time spent in parks, as my colleague James Hamblin wrote in 2015.

In some ways, this is a return to an 18th- and 19th-century understanding of what the body needs. Old-timey therapies that suggested patients go for walks outside or “take in the sea air” were on to something. The pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale advocated strongly that patients be exposed to fresh air and sunlight. As she wrote in her 1859 Notes on Nursing, it is the unqualified result of all my experience with the sick, that second only to their need of fresh air is their need of light; that, after a close room, what hurts them most is a dark room. And that it is not only light but direct sun-light they want… People think the effect is upon the spirits only. This is by no means the case…Without going into any scientific exposition we must admit that light has quite as real and tangible effects upon the human body.

The light certainly feels tangible here, snuggled in the bosom of the Rockies. There are still stripes of snow on the mountains, which are peppered here and there with fistfuls of pipe-cleaner pine trees. There is a sparkling lake in the valley, and the rushing sound of a hidden waterfall off to our right. The morning mountain air is thin and cold, but fresh, and the smell of pine is so strong that it seems fake. It smells like someone has strapped a got-dang Yankee Candle to my nose. I discreetly sniff the woman next to me to be sure she’s not just wearing a really strong perfume.

All of this is distracting, Williams says, from any ruminative, negative thoughts I might otherwise be having. She references a study that had people take a 90-minute walk either in a natural environment, or in an urban environment, scanning their brains before and after. The people who went on a nature stroll had decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is associated with rumination—the sort of negative thoughts that you return to over and over, picking at a scab. And the participants reported feeling better, as well.

Williams says she copied Michael Pollan’s “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” axiom for her own prescription: “Go outside, go often, go with friends, or not.”

But the problem is that this rash of research showing how wonderful nature is for you is coinciding with a decrease in the amount of time people actually spend in nature. “Our culture tells you that watching Netflix or eating ice cream will make you feel great, and those things are great, but many of us in our society are very disconnected from nature,” Williams says.

A 2008 study found that the percent of Americans who participate in outside activities like camping, fishing, or hunting has been decreasing by about 1 percent a year since the late 1980s. A survey done in the U.K. found that 70 percent of adults remembered doing most of their “adventurous play” outside, while only 29 percent of kids said the same. And, at least in 2001, when the Environmental Protection Agency did its National Human Activity Pattern Survey, adults spent 87 percent of their time indoors in buildings, and another 6 percent of their time in vehicles.

“That goes to this issue of who has access to nature, and who can gain access,” says Michael Dorsey, the senior program officer for sustainability at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. “The decline is differential, based on socioeconomic differences, on race, and on class.” As more people move to urban areas, nature gets farther away. And it’s easier to get to the nature if you have the money to pay for the gas to drive there, for the park entrance fee, for camping gear. When coming up with prescriptions for nature, Dorsey says, “we also have to do that in a political economic context.”

That means making nature available for people who can’t trek to the mountains—making it part of people’s day to day lives. Williams brings up Frederick Olmsted, the designer of Central Park. “His greatest lasting legacy,” she says, “is what he understood about how human communities really need nature, not just to make us feel better. We need these green spaces for democracy. It becomes a ground for the mixing of different classes, different ethnicities. It wasn’t just about the aesthetics—it was about what it meant for the way we socialize with each other, the way we live together.”

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

About the Author

Julie Beck
Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health and psychology.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Psycho-Geography: a way to delve into the soul of a city

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A stroll through Sydney’s Marks Park and the nearby tourist attraction Sculptures by the Sea is a different experience if one knows the area’s brutal history. Leah-Anne Thompson from www.shutterstock.com

Siobhan Lyons, Macquarie University

Psychogeography, as the term suggests, is the intersection of psychology and geography. It focuses on our psychological experiences of the city, and reveals or illuminates forgotten, discarded, or marginalised aspects of the urban environment.

Both the theory and practice of psychogeography have been around since 1955, when French theorist Guy Debord coined the term. While it emerged from the Situationist International movement in France, the practice has far-reaching implications. It’s relevant, for instance, in contemporary Sydney.
Psychogeographers advocate the act of becoming lost in the city. This is done through the dérive, or “drift”.

Because purposeful walking has an agenda, we do not adequately absorb certain aspects of the urban world. This is why the drift is essential to psychogeography; it better connects walkers to the city.

Psychogeographers idolise the flâneur, a figure conceived in 19th-century France by Charles Baudelaire and popularised in academia by Walter Benjamin in the 20th century. A romantic stroller, the flâneur wandered about the streets, with no clear purpose other than to wander.

In his 2013 Paris Review article, In Praise of the Flâneur, Bijan Stephen observes that the use of the flâneur “as a vehicle for the examination of the conditions of modernity” fell out of favour in the ensuing decades. Stephen poses the question:
But as we grow inexorably busier – due in large part to the influence of technology – might flânerie be due for a revival?

Walking as an act of insurgency

The revival had already begun, thanks to popular contemporary psychogeographers, notably Iain Sinclair and Will Self (whose book Psychogeography was published ten years ago).

In his book London Orbital, Iain Sinclair describes a walk around the M25 and the “unloved outskirts of the city”. He observes:
I had to walk around London’s orbital motorway; not on it, but within what the Highways Agency calls the ‘acoustic footprints’. The soundstream. Road has replaced river. The M25 does the job of the weary Thames, shifting contraband, legal and illegal cargoes, offering a picturesque backdrop to piracy of every stamp.
Sinclair describes his walk as having a “ritual purpose” to “exorcise the unthinking malignancy of the Dome, to celebrate the sprawl of London”. He also describes walking as a virtue.

Self sees walking as “a means of dissolving the mechanised matrix which compresses the space-time continuum”. He describes the solitary walker as “an insurgent against the contemporary world, an ambulatory time traveller”.

Psychogeography is therefore useful in showing that walking is not only an art form in itself. It is also crucial in understanding the complication between the histories and myths of urban landscapes.

A stroll through the city can take the flâneur to unexpected places, past and present. belpo/flickr, CC BY-NC

Psychogeography in Sydney

Sydney is already notable for being a walking city, and certain people are eager to explore its psychogeographical potential.

Current Sydney “psychogeographical” practitioners and/or theorists include Vanessa Berry, Ian Collinson and Peter Doyle. Berry’s blog Mirror Sydney focuses on her psychogeographical adventures in Sydney.

In her wanderings around places such as St Peters, Tempe, Leichhardt, Sydenham and Hornsby, her practice of psychogeography “re-enchants” places that, she says, “are overlooked or not usually subjects for attention”.
She says:
Some of the Sydney places I have most enjoyed writing [about] are ones from the recent past that have now fallen into disuse or disrepair, but are still present in the urban environment.
In April 2017, Berry hosted the Sydney Lost and Found bus tour with Sydney Living Museums.
Psychogeography has other uses besides drifting or re-enchanting marginalised spaces. It has a historical use as well. In cases where the landscape has been affected by crime or suffering, psychogeographic readings are especially poignant.

David Brown, of UNSW, for example, provides a psychogeographic reading of a walk from Maroubra Beach to Bondi and its criminal history. Walking to Marks Park in Bondi, the scene of a series of homophobic attacks in the 1980s, which went largely unsolved, Brown observes:
The everyday acts of walking and talking while passing through a ‘landscape’ serve to constitute a criminology of everyday life, illustrating the way in which a consciousness of crime, crime sites, analyses and theories permeates the ways a ‘tourist trail’ might be experienced and seen, myths made and histories forged.
The fact that the park sits near the Sculptures by the Sea – a much-hyped tourist destination in Bondi since 1997 – is significant; it seems to trivialise the brutal history of the area, a history written over and unnoticed by tourists, and forgotten by locals.

Traversing the memory divide

University of Melbourne Professor Maria Tumarkin describes this in terms of “traumascapes”. A traumascape is a “distinctive category of places transformed physically and psychically by suffering, part of a scar tissue that stretches across the world”.

Over time, a huge waste mound became a natural-looking hill, the Beckton Alps, which were even the site of a short-lived ski slope. Jeff Van Campen/flickr, CC BY-NC

Similarly, Sinclair talks of what he calls “Obscenery”, a neologism referring to negative transitions in the urban landscape. He uses it in reference to a garbage heap that became reconstructed as a recreational space, known as Beckton Alps. The fact that visitors did not know they were standing on a previous garbage waste site fascinated Sinclair.

The transition of a space from one use to another undergirds much of psychogeography’s preoccupation; the notion of a palimpsest – an object or piece of writing with new material superimposed over earlier writings – is particularly important.

In his book Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory, Andreas Huyssen discusses the increasing phenomenon of selective memory in cities that confronted trauma (Berlin, New York, etc).

He talks specifically of “Berlin as palimpsest”. He sees Berlin as a “disparate city-text that is being rewritten while earlier texts are preserved, traces restored, erasures documented”. He describes the city as a text haunted by its past and present negotiations with its Nazi and Communist history.
The ConversationThis is what makes psychogeography a particularly useful critique beyond mere urban re-enchantment. Psychogeography thrives as an interrogation of space and history; it compels us to abandon – at least temporarily – our ordinary conceptions of the face value of a location, so that we may question its mercurial history.

Siobhan Lyons, Scholar in Media and Cultural Studies, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.