Harvard physician Paul Dudley White, the ‘father of American cardiology’, believed that a brisk, five mile walk every day is as good a remedy for a restless mind as anything the worlds of medicine and psychology have to offer. Many literary notables, from Charles Dickens to Will Self, have written at length on the restorative effects of their peregrinations through the urban jungle, but as Dr. White well understood, there is something unique about walking in natural surroundings that no amount of urban wandering can approximate.
George Orwell, Thomas De Quincey, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Søren Kierkegaard, Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, Henry David Thoreau and countless other writers have remarked on the effects of time spent in nature on our intellectual and creative faculties. The physicist Werner Heisenberg was a keen hiker, as were Paul Dirac, Otto Frisch and Lise Meitner, all of whom reported having come to key scientific discoveries while out walking in the hills. For the English Romantics, through whose influence wandering the countryside à pied became a popular leisure pursuit in England in the late 1700s, immersion in nature was not only a source of literary inspiration (in + spirare — ‘to breathe in’), but fundamental to the creative process. William Godwin “made whole books” as he walked. Across the Channel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who spent much of his youth wandering the hills of Central Europe, found in the natural world a clarity of thought that eluded him amid the bustle of urban life. “Cities”, Rousseau concluded, were “the abyss of the human species”.
Over the last few decades, the restorative effects of nature — understood intuitively by writers and artists for centuries— have become a key focus of scientific research. With more than 50% of the world’s population now living in cities, interest in the ramifications of our increasing alienation from the natural world has led to an increased understanding of the importance of nature exposure in terms of its impact on our psychological well-being.
A spate of studies have looked in particular at an apparent link between the rapid and widespread urbanisation that has occurred across the world over the last half-century and a marked rise in instances of mental illness over the same period. The exact cause of this correlation is still unknown, but one theory…