Tag Archives: wilderness

Experiencing wilderness keeps us happy, so we should protect it even in cities

Experiencing wilderness is particularly important for physical and mental health finds new research led by the University of Washington (UW).

Lighthouse at the Discovery Park, Seattle.
Image credits Michael Camilleri / Flickr.

We’ve gradually lost touch with nature as our cities grew wide and tall around us. The luckier among us city dwellers might live close to a park, or on a green-roofed building, giving us some access to natural areas; but wild ones are virtually non-existent. A new study reports that exposure to wilderness is an important factor for human physical and mental health, especially so in urban landscapes, even compared to other types of natural areas.

Wild at heart

“It was clear from our results that different kinds of nature can have different effects on people,” said lead author Elizabeth Lev, a graduate student in the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

“The wilder areas in an urban park seem to be affording more benefits to people — and their most meaningful interactions depended on those relatively wild features.”

The study focused on the Discovery Park in Seattle, the largest in the city (roughly 500 acres in size). The park is situated about 20 minutes by car from Seattle’s downtown areas, and has faced the same development pressures as others in cities with growing populations, the team explains. The research was prompted by the park’s advisory board, which asked the team to find out which elements are most important for park-goers in order to better inform decision-makers.

Despite focusing on this single park, the team is confident that their findings hold over well for most other major cities and beyond.

“We looked at Discovery Park, but this is about the entire planet,” said senior author Peter Kahn, a UW professor of environmental and forest sciences and psychology. “Everywhere, development is chipping away at wild areas. Humanity has caused so much destruction and there’s no stopping it — unless we stop.”

“We’re trying to show that if you’re going to develop an area, you at least need to understand the human costs.”

The team asked several hundred visitors to the park to submit a written online summary of a meaningful interaction they had at Discovery Park, obtaining 320 submissions. Then they set about coding these experiences into several categories (which the researchers call “interaction patterns”) to allow for better handling of the data. For example, an account stating “we sat and listened to the waves at the beach for a while” was assigned to the categories “sitting at beach” and “listening to waves.”

They found that six categories were consistently rated as important to visitors. These included encountering wildlife, walking alongside a body of water, enjoying the view, or following an established trail. They further looked at how the wilderness component factored into these experiences, finding that it had a role to play in nearly every interaction the visitors reported on. For example, “spotting bald eagle” references a relatively wild bird, and “watching birds perched on an old-growth tree,” denotes a wild habitat.

Additionally, the researchers looked at whether the park’s relative wildness was important in each visitor’s most meaningful experiences in the park. They defined “relatively wild” as including Discovery Park’s varied and relatively unmanaged land, its high levels of biodiversity, its “big nature” like old growth trees, large open spaces, expansive vistas, and people’s experience of the park’s solitude and removal from civilization.

The team explains that it’s important to know what these interactions are and what makes them valuable to us, so that we may better recognize and engage in them. Walking along the water’s edge on a weekend may be very fulfilling, but it’s not really an option most of us have on a busy weekday — but more ‘tame’ versions of it, such as walking along a fountain or other water feature to unwind, are.

“We’re losing the language of interaction with nature and, as we do, we also lose the cultural practice of these deep forms of interaction with nature, the wellsprings of human existence,” Kahn said.

“We’re trying to generate a nature language that helps bring these human-nature interactions back into our daily lives. And for that to happen, we also need to protect nature so that we can interact with it.”

It’s definitely an interesting study, and I do personally like the idea of mixing in more natural spaces in our lives. But as out cities become ever more crowded and space ever more expensive, there’s bound to be intense pressure to turn parks and recreational areas into more ‘productive’ landscapes. Studies such as this one go a long way towards reminding us that efficiency and profit aren’t the only ingredients of a good life; sometimes, happiness is as simple as sitting down and looking at an old tree.

The paper “Relatively Wild Urban Parks Can Promote Human Resilience and Flourishing: A Case Study of Discovery Park, Seattle, Washington” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Cities.


We’re watching a ‘horror story’ in which the casualty is Earth’s wilderness

The West is no longer wild — nor all other cardinal directions, a new paper reports.


Image via Pixabay.

The first comprehensive fine-scale map of the world’s remaining wild areas reveals that only 23% of the world can now be considered wilderness. The analysis included all terrestrial and marine environments, excluding Antarctica. Every other place on Earth has been directly affected by human activities.

Tamed with the stick

“These results are nothing short of a horror story for the planet’s last wild places,” says lead author James Watson of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the University of Queensland. “The loss of wilderness must be treated in the same way we treat extinction.”

“There is no reversing once the first cut enters. The decision is forever.”

The findings raise particular concerns as wilderness areas play an increasingly important role in mitigating a host of human impacts on the planet, including species extinction and climate change.

The team defined wilderness areas as those that have escaped industrial-level activity. Local communities can live, hunt, fish, forage, or whatever else they like to do within these areas — as long as the community’s footprint is under that of an industrialized society. They’re the last untouched ecosystems around and are much more robust than their counterparts as a result. Several previous papers (here’s an example) have shown that intact ecosystems are much more effective in sequestering carbon than degraded ones — overall, they capture over two times as much of the element as degraded ones. In the oceans, intact habitats are the last regions that can still support viable populations of top predators such as tuna, marlins, or sharks.

If those two points aren’t enough to sway you, first of all, shame on you. Secondly, it’s not only an environmental issue. Wild areas are home to millions of indigenous people who have forged a very deep bond with their environments. Their culture, as well as their livelihoods, are deeply intertwined with the wilderness — losing it would effectively render many of the world’s most unique cultures extinct.

Bushman group.

Cultures such as this.
Image credits Aino Tuominen.

Not all is lost, however. The authors note that two upcoming gatherings of key decision makers will be crucial to preserving Earth’s wild areas. These are the 14th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), held from November 17-29, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held between December 2-14 in Katowice, Poland.

Just 20 nations hold 94% of the worlds marine and terrestrial wilderness areas (excluding Antarctica and the High Seas), the team writes. Five of them (Russia, Canada, Australia, United States, and Brazil) together hold 70%. The authors say that these countries can make or break our efforts of securing the last wild vestiges of Earth’s ecosystems.

“Wilderness will only be secured globally if these nations take a leadership role,” says John Robinson, Executive Vice President for Global Conservation at WCS and a co-author of the paper.

“Right now, across the board, this type of leadership is missing. Already we have lost so much. We must grasp these opportunities to secure the wilderness before it disappears forever.”

The authors and their organizations urge participants at the meetings to include a mandated target for wilderness conservation. They recommend setting 100% conservation of all intact wild ecosystems as a bold but achievable goal. Formally documenting the carbon sequestration and storage capacities of wilderness areas, and enshrining them into policy recommendations, would also help governments include such ecosystems in their emission-reduction strategies, they add.

The paper “Protect the last of the wild” has been published in the journal Nature.

Earth’s last wilderness areas may soon be lost, study warns

A new study on the planet’s last remaining marine wildernesses finds similar results to what was observed on land: the world’s last wild areas are disappearing, and fast.

Explicit, urgent, and decisive measures are required if we want to preserve what’s left of the planet’s last wild areas. Researchers from the University of Queensland recently mapped ocean ecosystems that have remained unchanged, complementing a 2016 project charting remaining terrestrial wilderness.

The initial land study brought forth some worrying results, says Professor James Watson, from UQ’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

“A century ago, only 15 per cent of the Earth’s surface was used by humans to grow crops and raise livestock,” he said. “Today, more than 77% of land — excluding Antarctica — and 87% of the ocean has been modified by the direct effects of human activities.”

[panel style=”panel-info” title=”Wild things” footer=””]A wilderness area is a region that’s not been strongly affected by human activity. It can also be called a wild or natural area, but in many countries, Wilderness Area actually has a legal meaning.

Most scientists and conservationists agree that no place on earth is completely untouched by humanity, either due to past occupation or through global processes like climate change, but in a wilderness area, human impact is still minimal.[/panel]

Image credits: Nature.

Now, Watson and colleagues have published similar results on ocean habitats, finding that outside the polar areas, there are almost no wilderness areas — and if current trends continue, they will soon be altered too.

“In the ocean, the only regions that are free of industrial fishing, pollution and shipping are almost completely confined to the polar regions,” he adds.

Postdoctoral Research Fellow James R. Allan, who is also a study author, said the world’s remaining wilderness could only be protected if they are clearly defined in national and international policy and if urgent measures are taken to protect them. Particularly, international accountability is necessary, he argues.

“Some wilderness areas are protected under national legislation, but in most nations, these areas are not formally defined, mapped or protected,” he said. “There is nothing to hold nations, industry, society or communities to account for long-term conservation.”

“We need the immediate establishment of bold wilderness targets — specifically those aimed at conserving biodiversity, avoiding dangerous climate change and achieving sustainable development.”

Overall, 77% of land — excluding Antarctica — and 87% of oceans had been modified by human intervention. Furthermore, just five countries (Australia, the US, Brazil, Russia, and Canada) host the world’s remaining wilderness areas.

It’s crucial that these five nations take an active leadership role in protecting what’s left of the wild areas, and all other countries step in as well, researchers add. The team is calling for an international agreement to protect 100% of remaining intact ecosystems, which they believe is still feasible.

“It’s achievable to have a target of 100%,” Watson said. “All nations need to do is stop industry from going into those places.”

The study was published in Nature.