Why cities need urban wild spaces

It’s been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. A bit cliché, I know. But the funny thing about clichés is they are often based in fact.

So take a look at the photo below…

wild1

What you’re seeing here are a couple of things. At first glance, it looks like rolling, wooded countryside on a warm, bright spring day. You’d be right in concluding that.

But it’s also something else. It’s a snapshot of land inside the boundaries of a mid-sized city smack in the heart of Middle America. Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness is a slice of forested acreage, complete with dirt trails that’s 7 miles away from downtown Tulsa. In an area of town that is ripe for housing and commercial development, leaders in the public and private sectors of this city had the foresight to set aside this place for something else.

And man, I’m glad they did.

I can remember having a discussion about the concept of “urban wilderness” with another person who admitted she got a bit of a giggle out of that phrase. I can understand that. It’s not really possible to have a “wilderness” in the middle of a metro area of a million people.

But you can have a wild place, and it’s important for communities to recognize that.

Most towns and cities already have parks filled with ballfields, playgrounds, jogging paths and pavilions for picnics. Those are great, but they aren’t wild. They’re as man-made as an office park.

Similarly, most cities of any size have entertainment districts, theaters and shopping malls. They’ll also have their fair share of fitness centers — big-box gyms, Crossfit “boxes,” YMCAs and martial arts studios. All places that you can get a workout in.

But all these places share something in common — they’re all very much part of the decidedly unnatural environment of a city. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that they offer no escape from urban and suburban environments.

There are a lot of reasons why people start exercise programs, see some success, but ultimately end up quitting. Some of that could be injuries. Or life circumstances. But I think A lot of people quit because they get bored.

Think of it. How many months do you think you could stand of running on a treadmill, staring at a TV screen before it became a chore? How many laps around the neighborhood can you go on your bike or on foot before the sameness of a subdivision gets on your nerves? How many sets of 8 to 12 reps of the same exercise three times a week will you do before you just choose not to walk into the gym?

All of these things are fine, but sometimes you need escape — a place to go that does not look, sound or smell like what you see every day. You need somewhere you can move and grab some solitude without fear of getting hit by a car or getting hit on by some d-bag.

You might also need a place to challenge you. Big, steep hills. Difficult terrain.

That’s the beauty of urban wild spaces. For an hour or five, you can get away. Have a mini adventure. See some wildlife. Throw down on a leg-blasting, lung-busting workout and get a little fresh air and sunshine in the process. Or just take a walk on a lonely path and absorb a little quiet.

I’ve been a gym rat for years, but I’ve long needed balance — something outside the gym. I’ve embraced running, going from a slow 5K guy to a marathoner in a span of less than three years, but I can promise you that without my local trails, I probably would not have gotten that far.

Besides, nature is just awesome. Anyone can go outside, and I think you should. But going outside in a wilder setting trumps everything else. People need a connection to nature, especially those of us living in places that are completely manufactured.

I’ve lived in a lot of cities, and surprisingly few have wild places set aside. If your city has one, use it. Promote it. Protect it.

If your city does not have one, see what you can do to encourage the establishment and preservation of open spaces.

So take another look at that picture. What does it say to you? What it says to me is that if you find some land and just leave it alone, you’ll find a whole new crowd of people who will use it — hikers, cyclists, runners, horseback enthusiasts and more. It’s a lesson on finding new and better ways to get people moving at a time when our country desperately needs to get up and move more.

Not every square inch of a city has to be developed. Lord knows, we’ve got enough subdivisions, malls and movie theaters. Golf courses aplenty. Maybe it’s the anti-“Field of Dreams” philosophy — if you don’t build it, people will come.

Bob Doucette

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3 thoughts on “Why cities need urban wild spaces

  1. I personally wish they would sell the land for use by people who want to keep it exactly the way it is. I’d love to have a log cabin right in the middle of one of our hiking areas :D A hundred years ago somebody cleared a whole bunch of old-growth forest to build…yech…lawns. I want my forest back! :D

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