Finding Nature, Quieting the Mind: The Promise of Forest Therapy in Cities
By Jamie Trost
Noise is nearly inescapable in the city. Parks, greenways, and other bits of nature offer visual, tactile, and olfactory relief from urban noise, but can only do so much to buffer the ears from sirens, horns, and engines that pop from the constant hum of people moving and talking. Despite the prevalence of potentially distracting sounds, a growing number of people are practicing Japanese-inspired “forest bathing” deep in the heart of urban areas.
Translated from the Japanese shinrin yoku, forest bathing comes up frequently in discussions about nature, mindfulness, or environmental psychology. Though it can involve interacting with water, the practice isn't a literal bath, but a deeply sensory immersion in nature, and often called forest therapy to avoid confusion. While it is something that can be done individually, there are guides who lead forest therapy experiences across the world, many of them working in densely populated areas. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT) in Santa Rosa, California hosts the only comprehensive training practicum, and a world-wide network of Certified Forest Therapy Guides, including all of the guides interviewed in this article. ANFT’s Executive Director Amos Clifford continues the Japanese connection to the practice by saying the ideal place for forest therapy is the satoyama zone, which he defines as “territory that is almost familiar but beyond the boundaries of ordinary experience.”
Since it is meant to be a deep sensory immersion into nature, the ambient soundscape, whatever it is, will blend into the experience. Forest therapy guides who work in cities waver between three options for dealing with urban noise -- ignore it, embrace it, or replace it with something else.
Which path to choose often requires a close read of your audience. Nancy Kopans primarily leads walks in New York City’s Central Park, and often invokes local pride in getting participants to tune out the city. “If it’s apparent that there will be background noise,” she says, “I often make a small suggestion that we use our ‘New Yorker focus, to tune into natural sounds.”
Standard practice is to ask participants to turn off cell phones and other electronics before the two and a half to three-hour walk begins, so that the remaining noise is largely in the background and distant. But Kopans notes that city green spaces can be full of surprises. “I once had a wood chipping machine start up nearby. There was nothing we could do but laugh and move on.”
Often, quieting the participant’s own internal noise is more challenging than the external soundtrack. Both Kopans and Siobhan MacKenzie, a guide from Toronto, Ontario relate experiencing this: “Urban dwellers are deeply distracted from themselves,” says MacKenzie, “Their lives are full of all sorts of ‘do-ings.’ When I invite them to slow down and connect with their surroundings they are confronted with their ‘be-ing.’”
MacKenzie’s words ring with echoes of Henry David Thoreau’s lament that he could not “shake off the village” even when walking in the forest. Seemingly as prone to distraction as any of us, he noted that “the thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is,—I am out of my senses...What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”
For most modern city-dwellers, the concerns and stresses Thoreau wrestled with are still there, but the wide-open spaces are not. Spatial limitations have led some guides to creative adaptations, or even seemingly creating nature out of thin air. Amanda Yik recently created a forest therapy experience for the IRIS Hong Kong Health and Wellness Festival using branches and leaves gathered from trees felled by a recent typhoon and a small patch of artificial grass.
“There wasn’t even one tree,” Yik says. “It took me many days to collect pieces of nature to bring to this session.” To deal with the issue of sound, Yik just created her own: “We used headsets to create a natural soundscape.”
While using such modern methods might seem like blurring the line between actual and virtual nature, Yik thinks “facilitating a session of nature connection at what felt like an ex-construction site in the middle of Central Hong Kong” was worth bending the rules a bit.
Even in less industrial areas, forest therapy guides employ some creative tactics for bringing people closer to nature. While she invites participants to “notice sounds both natural and man-made” on her walks, Brenda Spritzer, who leads forest therapy walks in Lisle, Illinois, has taken an innovative approach to forest therapy in small spaces by literally magnifying the nature at hand. “I began using magnifying glasses on walks in 2015,” says Spritzer, “I do use them quite often to draw participants’ focus into the moment and place. It is quite effective.”
Magnifying the available nature through intense focus seems like a great strategy for Forest Bathers and Biophilic Cities alike.
Jamie Trost is a Graduate Student in the Urban and Environmental Planning program at the University of Virginia. He completed ANFT Certified Forest Therapy Guide Training in December of 2017.
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Clifford, M. A. (2018). Your guide to forest bathing: Experience the healing power of nature. Newburyport, MA: Conari Press.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walking. Applewood Books, 1992.
Choukas-Bradley, M., & Vorst, L. V. (2018). The joy of forest bathing: Reconnect with wild places & rejuvenate your life. London: Rock Point.
ANFT Web Site