Solving Your Nature Deficit Disorder in the City: A Tree Grows…Almost Anywhere

Inline_Urban_Nature_DeficitToday’s guest post is offered up by Katy Bowman, biomechanist and author of the bestselling Move Your DNA and her recent book, Movement Matters, which examines our sedentary culture, our personal relationship to movement, and some of the global effects of outsourcing movement. I’m happy to welcome a good friend back to Mark’s Daily Apple to share on this topic. Just in time for Earth Day this weekend…

I recently held a couple of events in New York City. A question came up a few times: How can someone who lives and operates their daily life in a big city get the nature they both need and want when they’re unable or ready to change where they live? The answer can help many people in our culture achieve a deeper relationship with nature no matter where they live.

Step 1: Check your vacation.

Although the exact number and distribution of everyone’s vacation days range, if you’re someone who gets vacation time at work, take a good hard look at how you spend it. Do you spend this portion of your life—when you’re (supposedly) under the least amount of obligation—in nature camping or hiking? Start with this. Take seven or eight months to plan the wilderness experience you’ve been wanting. It doesn’t have to be expensive—see if you can borrow or rent camping gear, or share the costs of a campsite with friends. It can also be closer to home than you realize, and there are often organizations that help people connect to nature via public transportation or intercity buses.



Step 2: Check your weekends.

Any nature there? Are you hitting the trails for a day hike or taking the family to the park for a picnic? Is it difficult to get to nature because you’re already scheduled for and immersed in non-nature activities? Figure out why and adjust as possible.


Step 3: Check your time before and after work.

It may not be abundant time, but you can likely find 15-60 minutes at both the beginning and end of your day that are ripe for adjusting. Are you going outside for even 15-minute walks first and last thing? Do you ever step outside (or even look outside!) to gaze at and identify the phase of the moon? Ever get up early to revel in a sunrise, or is it too hard to get up that early? Hint: Going to bed earlier is sleeping in on the other side.


Step 4: Identify the many components of nature.

Although I’d argue that nature is everything, nature as we often think and talk of it—that wild place where we can escape and be free—can be thought of as the sum of many parts. When you say you want more nature, what draws you to it, exactly? A few aspects of nature include:

  • fresh air
  • natural light
  • long distances for viewing
  • temperature variations
  • plant interactions
  • the rhythm of seasons
  • the speed of the wind
  • precipitation
  • wildlife
  • natural movement
  • quiet
  • rest
  • biophony (the sound of the natural world, as opposed to anthropophony, the sound created by humans)
  • water

Of course, there are far more parts to nature than this. Once you can recognize them, you can select those that feel most necessary to you. Then you can identify elements of nature you can bring into your home or everyday life, to increase your overall interaction with various parts of nature.


Step 5: Adjust your environment.

If you love interacting with plants in nature but don’t have any on your desk, there’s a gap you can fill immediately, no matter your zip code. If you love the beauty of nature, decorate your windowsills or shelves with rocks and shells, and your table with bouquets of leaves or branches (from your weekend hike!). If you have or work with kids—or even if you don’t—keep baskets holding rocks, fossils, moss, snake skins, antlers, and bones where curious hands can find them easily.

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Practice natural movements for exercise, sit on the floor or seats of various heights to use your knees and hips differently, and add rugs with various textures to stimulate bare feet. Lower your thermostat or open the windows more often. This way, you can start interacting with the aspects of nature just outside the walls of your office or home by moving the thermal-regulating parts of your body.

Go without sunglasses more often, starting off early and late in the day, a few minutes at a time, and build up to being able to tolerate natural light. Or walk without an umbrella sometimes and experience a little discomfort (and recognize how exhilarating that can be).

Try to eat locally enough that you’re in touch with when things are growing in your region; get to know which foods are ripe when. Keep some containers of medicinal plants (aloe is an easy one), herbs, or vegetables in your house or on a balcony, or volunteer at a community garden.

Keep a pair of binoculars by your window and become an urban bird watcher. There are more than pigeons out there, and even if there aren’t, pigeons are fascinating to observe.

Put your phone down and turn off your GPS and start navigating by map and then by landmark—skills that you’ll likely call on during your wilderness vacation.

Read books and poetry about nature. What you read helps to form your worldview. What you read is where you’re putting your attention. What ideas are you spending time with?


Step 6: Keep going.

When we have strong tendencies toward all-or-nothing thinking, we forget the value of small transitioning movements. Before you start a marathon, you’ve taken hundreds of smaller steps in small runs. In this same way, you can transition away from a nature deficit through hundreds if not thousands of small steps.

Where the magic happens is, once you take an hour or two to create a nature space on your desk (or wherever you start), you’ll find yourself thinking about how to change your weekend time. Once you decide to schedule your birthday party as a hike instead of a dinner party, you start thinking about how to get a garden started on your kitchen counter. As you adapt to nature, you sort of get pulled towards it. Just keep stepping, and you’ll see more nature appear…even in the heart of the Big Apple.

City Park

Thanks for reading, everyone. Which of these ideas has inspired you the most today? Other ideas to add? 

Bio: Katy Bowman is a biomechanist by training and a problem-solver at heart. Her award-winning blog and podcast, Katy Says, reach hundreds of thousands of people every month, and thousands have taken her live classes. Katy is the author of eight books, including the best-selling Move Your DNA and Movement Matters, a collection of essays in which she continues her groundbreaking investigation of the mechanics of our sedentary culture and the profound potential of human movement.

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18 thoughts on “Solving Your Nature Deficit Disorder in the City: A Tree Grows…Almost Anywhere”

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  1. What great ideas. We are fortunate to live in the Pacific Northwest where there are so many great nature spots to enjoy on a daily basis, but the ideas in this post can work almost anywhere. Thanks Katy!

  2. Did in fact find a snakeskin and place it in my bedroom window once when I was twelve. I wanted to study the scale pattern for future artwork projects. Scared my mom half to death when she discovered it the next day when we were all at school. Was just a little too much “nature” for her.

  3. I love these kinds of posts! So inspiring as spring sets in here. I’ve been adding natural elements to my home this year, and it helped get me through the winter. 🙂

  4. Great ideas. I live in an urban area, and these are good reminders. Reminds me to get going on planning my summer vacay too!

  5. I tend to have an all-or-nothing outlook — so if I can’t have the big open sky over the saguaros in Tucson, then I’ve got nothing at all. This post is a great reminder that such thinking is not serving me! I live in Brooklyn near Prospect Park, which is green and in parts semi-wild. Just the other night an adolescent raccoon showed up on the fire escape. Every little park walk, every sidewalk tree full of gabbling sparrows, refreshes my spirit. Thanks for the reminder!

    1. Sylvie, I was planning a trip/considering a move to New York a few years ago, and I found an abundance of outdoor activities within the city and short rides via train. Do some research on this. I found free climbing groups in the city at different rocky outcroppings in various parks. Didn’t save the info but it’s there.

  6. Wonderful post, Mark. I’m on week 9 after total hip replacement surgery and your post has inspired me to start a garden, even if it’s just a couple of tomato plants and some zinnias. Looking forward to implementing some of your ideas from this post when I’m stronger. In the past, to try and fill the nature deficit at my navy workplaces, I’ve placed pictures of woods and waterfalls under the glass tops of my desk as reminders to get out and enjoy the outdoors instead of watching TV in the evening. For several years I rode my huffy bike almost daily to work and back in nearly every weather condition just to relieve stress and to experience the changing seasons. Finally, when given the chance to choose a private office in the middle of a Navy ship, or place my desk next to a hatch leading to the outside in a not so private room, I chose the hatch. It got wicked cold in that space sometimes but when the weather was nice and/or we were out to sea, it was so worth it to open the hatch and see the beautiful ocean.

    1. Judybug, congrats on the THR and keep on moving! I am about 5 months out and it is such a joy to be able to hike and work in my garden again!! So happy I did it!

  7. Great post…love everything from Katy Bowman. I live in a suburban area, but it is still easy to feel disconnected from nature. Thankfully I have a dog who needs a lot of exercise, so I get out and walk several times a day. I have become very aware of the moon, and have seen some glorious sunrises. We regularly see deer, squirrels, rabbits and all kinds of birds. Love the idea of bringing more nature indoors!

  8. Beautiful, wise post and guidance – thank you, Katy!

    In my current home of Nelson, British Columbia, I’m surrounded by natural beauty every day. And yet, I still remind myself to pause and truly take it in. If I’m feeling busy or rushed, all the more so.

    When eating dinner, for instance, I stop a few times during the meal to gaze out the windows on two sides of me…and the skylight up above. I *breathe in* the mountains, lake and sky. I remind myself what a blessing it is to live in this place.

  9. You might also be able to pick your view. We recently moved from an apartment overlooking a swamp to one overlooking a park with a pond. Both views allowed viewing wildlife which is another way to fight a nature deficit.

  10. Great post and a good reminder of what is all around (and part of) us. One more point: check your food – gardening, even a few pots on a balcony, connects us with the seasons, and gets us outside and moving to check on growth, and keep a lookout for all the other parts of nature that want to eat what we’re growing before we do.

  11. This was absolutely wonderful! Fortunately I am surrounded by nature but what this article reminded me of was the deep and earnest intention to be in nature and the respect we have when IN nature. Thanks Mark and Katy!

  12. On the flip side, it’s not just that we’re low in nature, but we’re also high in urban pollution. Smog, visual pollution, and noise are so pervasive but we don’t even think about it. Something as simple as taking 15 minutes to listen to nature sounds or classical music can help – I like to use this playlist:

  13. “Going to bed earlier is sleeping in on the other side.” Love this! As a former “night owl”, this is the type of perspective change I needed to make in order to get myself to go to bed earlier. Now that I’m doing it, I get to experience things like the sunrise, and *gasp* free time in the mornings!

  14. Oh thanks, Katy, I love this. I live in the city and try to get outside whenever possible. I love the idea of bringing nature inside. It also struck me that I often wear jewellery which has elements of nature in it such as feathers or wood too.

  15. Excellent post with uncanny timing. I just began a 6-week RV trip, with overnights in many of the more classic outdoor locations (Yosemite, Olympic, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Lake Tahoe). Just spent the last two nights in Sequoia National Park. And had just finished a dog walk around the RV park, in the brisk morning air, taking in sunshine without my glasses. Breathing the air! Marveling at all this green (CA has been so dry for so long).
    Staying primal while RV-ing is always a challenge foodwise. But I do love that we get to park our home in the middle of nature at times. And we love exploring the nature around us each time, to all its varying degrees.