Our Urban Wilds
Updated: Mar 16, 2020
As a child growing up in South Africa, the wilderness defined my formative years, but the elements, landscape, and wildlife have had influence far beyond this. Throughout my career, which began in law, took a few schizophrenic diversions, and now straddles sustainability and wellbeing, I’ve looked for ways to protect our vulnerable habitats. I recently set aside my more conventional ‘9 to 5’ job to build my business, which set me on the path of interrogating the link between wellness and wilderness. What emerged from this introspective and somewhat daunting journey – in which I often wanted to escape to the nearest mountain! – was the realisation that many of the aspects of the wild I craved could be found right here in London.
Although I often turn to adventures in wilder nature to challenge my adaptation and resilience, the capacity of nature to empower, calm, and nurture us can still be felt within the city environment. Some years ago, having returned buoyant from a stint in the mountains, the penny dropped that I had been the only woman on most of my adventures. My male teammates were always fantastic, but I became curious as to why so many of my female friends, colleagues, and clients felt that adventures in nature were unappealing. With my fitness industry hat on (I’m also a personal trainer and fitness coach) I’ve observed a few of the barriers in practice.
Looking particularly at outdoor activities, women often perceive a skills deficit and consequently are less likely to embark on outdoor challenges, despite their strength and capabilities. Outdoor gyms, climbing walls, cycle lanes, and waterways can feel intimidating for anyone new to an activity at the best of times, but our absence from these spaces may have been compounded by the historically male domain of mainstream ‘outdoor’ culture. When we add personal safety considerations into the mix – not to mention that often our only window for leisure coincides with the morning or evening hours of darkness – this can be enough to discourage us from venturing into our urban nature.
The gender disparity in activities like cycling has led to calls for mechanisms such as safety audits, which could help our decision-makers and local authorities plan for more active, liveable cities (Women4Climate’s report on Gender Inclusive Climate Action in Cities offers excellent perspectives on this). Without this holistic look at how our urban nature can work for all its citizens, we run the risk of depriving a large portion of the population of an alternative means to increase fitness (some two million women in the UK are less active than men). This makes me especially sad, as our green and blue spaces stand ready to feed our thirst for adventure and, even in their man-made forms, can be an ideal training ground for forays into wilder nature. Indeed, our urban living landscapes, for all their imperfections and man-made interferences, can offer us a proxy for remoter wilderness. They can coax our minds back to our bodies and help us to re-join the here and now. They can relieve stress, renew energy, encourage us to laugh, observe, heal, and play.
Happily, there are signs that their value and accessibility is improving, particularly as action on climate change encourages investment in low-carbon mobility options. In England, for example, the Department for Transport has this year committed £21 million to improve cycling infrastructure and a further £2 million to fund campaigns to encourage wider uptake of walking and cycling. Meanwhile increased emphasis on physical and mental wellbeing is driving changes in urban planning and improvements to green spaces, and introducing more fluidity to the working day so we can play outdoors at more sociable hours.
When we look at what we can physically do in urban nature, I’d rather talk about activity than exercise. To my mind, activity refers to a much broader and inclusive notion of fitness. As a trainer working with clients in and out of doors, I’ve noticed that the sense of community and place that comes from outdoor activity eclipses that of indoor alternatives. Yet, the prevalence of gym culture and the ‘appification’ of fitness continues to make indoor training a more favourable option. While there are many practical reasons for this – convenience, personal safety, weather, companionship – pursuing physical and mental strength indoors adds to our growing list of indoor-facing activities: living, working, socialising, healing, learning, and so on. My feeling is that for all the brilliance of the fast-paced, club-style, calorie-crushing workouts happening in many a city basement, nature offers us something markedly different. It invites us to be active in an outward-facing way, permitting us to lift our gaze, breathe deeply, think kindly, and take notice of our inner and outer strength.
Physical activity aside, the way we engage with our wildernesses doesn’t have to be strenuous to be meaningful; if the higher energy possibilities don’t appeal, there are some equally enriching alternatives. Connecting to the wild via art and food, for example, are very much worthy of their own story. Many cities now offer us the chance to learn to forage, draw our urban wildlife, keep bees, enjoy produce from city farms, visit wetlands, dwell in wildflower meadows, and so the list goes on. If in doubt and all else fails, we can always take a walk, which, as Filippo de Filippi said on K2 in 1909, is ‘really the only kind of locomotion that puts us on equal terms with the world about us'.
It is an exciting time to venture outside. In July this year, London will become the world’s first National Park City – a framework of formal and informal commitments to protect, celebrate, and expand nature in the capital, aiming to make 50 per cent of London’s space green by 2050. The more we incorporate these landscapes into our day-to-day narrative, the healthier we, and the environment on which we depend, will become. I hope that with a clear stake in our urban nature, we will feel individually and collectively empowered to lend our voices to the protection of more remote, and increasingly vulnerable, wilderness areas.