Zeshan Akhter is a Policy and Advice Officer in our Ecosystems and Biodiversity team. She works on the communications, health, and education strands of the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy. One focus for these strands is researching ways in which nature benefits people. Here she reflects on living in an urban setting and getting the most out of our greenspaces.
A few years ago, a young student, Jennifer Sanger, won a photography competition run by SNH with an image taken on her smart phone. She explained that she had grown up in the incredibly scenic town of Pitlochry, where she had been surrounded by woods and hills. No matter what happens in life, she always feels at home in the countryside. Having moved to Edinburgh, a big city, she can’t get to experience nature in the same way, but the sky is a constant wherever she goes. Even in a landscape that lacks the familiarity and memories of her home town; the sky grounds her. Perhaps that’s why Jennifer included her feet in the shot – clad in pink polka-dot socks and white trainers.
We know that city life is stressful. Our ancestors didn’t live in surroundings of stone, concrete and glass. No, in a miniscule passing of evolutionary time, we find ourselves living in dense urban settlements, with only the sky our constant companion.
Rigid lines of buildings and roads, unyielding surfaces and harsh textures, bright artificial lighting, the clamour of traffic, and pressing crowds all take a toll on our bodies, minds and hearts. Studies show that urban environments with no greenery elevate blood pressure and depress mood and self-esteem.
Nature, on the other hand, soothes and helps us feel well. I find that walking under trees is restful. I like the feeling of walking under trees in cities: they provide shade from the sun and a bit of shelter under the rain when I’m walking. They’re soothing, I like listening to the sounds of the leaves moving in the wind.
So I’d like more trees on the streets…or… that old dilapidated building on my street could do with being knocked down…the children round here don’t have anywhere to kick a ball so they play on the street…the local park isn’t safe…why not knock the building down and replace it with a little park? At least locally, the community would be able to look out for their children from the windows of their homes. At times too I think that my shared back garden is overgrown and I’d really like it to be useable, I wish there was somebody who could help with that to co-ordinate the people in the tenement and organise things
A few years ago, a group of friends and I visited the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park. Our guest of honour from the States, standing amongst the lofty pine trees, earnestly exhorted us to breathe deeply. Noticing quizzical looks, he explained that where he lives, in Chicago, there is nowhere you can go to take in such freshly made air. “Excuse the left-field comment,” he mused, smiling wryly, “but I feel as though I have to get as much of this freshly made oxygen while I can!“
We must allow ourselves moments to look at the sky and feel the air. And in case someone asks me what could make it even better, I’d reply “plant some trees in the streets of Edinburgh.” Jennifer can have her skies, and I’ll have my trees.
What would you like? Let your friendly neighbourhood SNH staff member know or drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org !
One and three (c) Becky Duncan/SNH, image four (c) Peter Sandground/SNH, and image two is the winning entry by Jennifer Sanger from the 2011 Biodiversity Week photo competition.