Opinion: The good life begins outdoors – The Globe and Mail
David Sax’s next book, The Future Is Analog: How to Create a More Human World, will be published in November.
The best advice I ever received came shortly after my daughter was born. It was sent to me by my friend Larry Smith, who specializes in six-word stories:
In is bad. Out is good.
The mantra was simple and unambiguous: Do not stay inside with a baby. When in doubt, get out. All through that first sleepless, colicky summer, my wife and I repeated those six words over and over, mumbling them as we strapped our daughter to our chests or plopped her in a stroller and hit the sidewalks to wander and bounce and shush at all hours, as her shrieks dissipated into the air.
I’d rather be outside. Any day. Any time. In any season and (almost) any weather. In the stinging rain of early spring and late fall, during the fiercest blizzard and bone-snapping deep freezes of February, in the blazing midday August sun and late during those damp November nights. Not just out enjoying nature, or playing on a bike, surfboard or skis, but in every single minute and moment I find myself out of a building or vehicle: the short walk to get coffee, waiting for a streetcar, taking out the garbage late at night and having a few words with my older neighbours in Portuguese (true masters of the porch chill). Each night I lie in bed and weigh the success of my day, based on how much of it was spent outdoors. The more time outside, the better a day it was.
In is bad. Out is good.
This realization, that I am simply happier outside, was cemented during that intense spring of 2020. Trapped in the house, forbidden to enter other buildings, outdoors was the only place to turn. For months I walked loops around the city, bundled up and hung out in backyards, ate picnics with frozen fingers on park benches, and forced my children out until they begged me in tears to go home.
What choice did I have? There was only so much screen time we could tolerate. I needed air, light and something to look at besides my possessions or whatever pixels were displayed on the nearest screen.
But necessity quickly gave way to pleasure. Patios opened in unexpected places and suddenly everything was revealed to be better al fresco. Eating, cooking, drinking, having difficult conversations, enduring conference calls, every kind of exercise, most manual labour, reading, shopping, movies, plays, concerts, thinking, arguing, painting, daydreaming, napping – heck, even taking a pee proved vastly superior in the open air.
But as the pandemic recedes, and the great indoors beckons unrestricted, I’m left wondering whether we might actually be better off in the open air, and if this moment is our last chance to shift the balance a little more out, for our own good.
According to the last comprehensive national survey conducted 11 years ago (the Canadian Human Activity Pattern Survey 2 – CHAPS 2), Canadians spend more than 95 per cent of their hours in a building or a vehicle, likely more than any other country in the world. Our default is indoors. We have become a nation that has engineered its lifestyle around escaping fresh air, linking the buildings in our city cores with underground tunnels and overpasses, such as Toronto’s PATH and Calgary’s Plus 15, so that no one needs to step outside if they don’t wish. Forget the collective myth of the rugged northern nature lover, chopping wood by a pine-scented mountain stream – we’re more likely to forage for pine-scented toilet-bowl cleaner at the mall then park in our garage without ever stepping into the open air.
Until the middle of the 20th century, most Canadians were farmers, whose life, work and identity was tied to the natural world. Industrialization gave us urbanization, which concentrated factories, offices and shops in central locations. These were made possible by new technologies – insulation, large windows, steel buildings, elevators, climate control systems – which clearly separated the exterior from the interior, and made life inside increasingly affordable, comfortable and predictable.
Underpinning all of this was a particularly North American faith in the indoors as a distinct measure of progress, a final triumph of man over the hostility of nature, which we colonized into submission with roads, highways, houses and malls.
“Some thinkers in the early 20th century linked the development of indoor living with a higher degree of civilization,” Andrea Vesentini told me. The Italian author of Indoor America: The Interior Landscape of Postwar Suburbia, singles out the Yale geographer and blatantly racist thinker Ellsworth Huntington as the leading voice of this movement, with his eugenics-derived theory that the most civilized societies (i.e., white) were a byproduct of the mid-Atlantic climate. “The climate of many countries seems to be one of the great reasons why idleness, immorality, stupidity, and weakness of will prevail,” Huntington wrote in Civilization and Climate (1915). “If we can conquer climate, the whole world will become stronger and nobler.”
In Huntington’s view, and that of fellow air-conditioning enthusiast S.F. Markham, outside was bad, an uncontrollable place where man had no defence against weather, beasts or even encounters with strangers who could be poor (gasp), from different cultures (double gasp), or both (triple gasp!). Inside, you could cultivate a predictably safe space, whose climate, aesthetic and demographics were completely controlled by its owners. “They believed that more time indoors made people more civilized,” Mr. Vesentini said.
Sure, there were detractors, including figures such as Henry Thoreau, who rebelled against the supposed progress of four walls and a roof, and held up the value of the natural world beyond. But they were minority voices. Office parks, drive-through restaurants and parking garages proliferated, offering comfort, convenience and control. At first, many malls included outdoor courtyards or gardens, but over time, these features were abandoned, along with windows. “The interest had to be focused inside,” Mr. Vesentini said, from his home near Venice. “Inside was where you sold stuff and wanted customers. You wanted customers to forget the outdoors.”
A shopping mall, whether it’s Toronto’s Yorkdale, Montreal’s Cavendish or the gargantuan West Edmonton, still delivers on that original promise: a safe space that guards from weather, whose air is kept at the precisely determined temperature, and whose security teams keep watch for any unwanted individuals or groups. In contrast, the outdoors can be distinctly uncomfortable.
A walk through Vancouver’s shopping areas is going to place you in direct contact with whatever mother nature (and human nature) throws your way: wind, rain, sleet, snow, sun, bird poop and wasp stings, construction noise, blaring music, aggressive drivers and delivery bikers, unhoused individuals, the mentally ill, the tragically addicted … even the threat of physical violence. I recently had to abandon my lunch at an outdoor market in downtown Toronto when a man squatted down next to my table, and did his business on the sidewalk. Life happens outside, but at least it happens. I’ll take my chances eating there again over a bland food-court meal in the recycled air at Yorkdale any day of the week.
I wasn’t always this way. I loved eating frozen yogurt and buying dumb T-shirts at the It Store in Yorkdale during the 1980s, and spent an inordinate amount of time in my basement, playing Nintendo and watching TV for hours at a time, until my eyes blazed red. Then, one day in my early 20s, I was watching TV after lunch, in the dark, when the stupidity of the whole thing just dawned on me. I ran to the windows and flung them open, unplugged the TV and unscrewed the cable, walked out the door and never looked back.
Two and a half years ago, as the pandemic amplified the distinction between the good of out and the bad of in, that feeling of disgust returned with a vengeance. My work, which previously brought me out into the world, had moved exclusively online and inside, along with my children’s school, culture, interactions with family and friends, and pretty much everything else I loved.
But the promise of the digital future – where you could do your job, get a meal from your favourite restaurant, go to a spin class or chat with your best friend without ever leaving the comfort of home – quickly turned into a deadening purgatory of boredom. Each day played out the same, anchored to screens, with little change in scenery or surprise.
I came to view any time indoors as a form of incarceration. After all, prison, our greatest punishment as a society, is nothing more than a forced version of the indoors life most of us voluntarily buy into. Each time I stepped out, to skate around the local rink with a mask on, walk to buy toothpaste, or just sit on my porch and watch the street, it felt like an act of rebellion against the promise that everything we needed could be found inside, or summoned with a few taps of the phone, like the happy family in an overpriced telecom commercial, streaming their tasty content from their own devices, even on a camping trip!
“I don’t think you’re unusual,” said Lisa Nisbet, when I asked her why my growing inclination for outdoors put me at odds with most people. An associate professor at Trent University and psychologist, Dr. Nisbet is known globally as a leading thinker in the study of how our relationship to nature and time outdoors affects our mental and physical health – what she calls Nature Relatedness, a concept that strongly links personal happiness with time spent outdoors. “The problem is that it is hard to disentangle why it makes us feel better,” Dr. Nisbet said. “The key may be a mix of better air quality, more space and the fact that things are more stimulating outside.”
Inside, your senses engage with the limited things on your walls, or whatever your phone serves up. Outside, the world is a buffet of sight, smell, sound, touch, taste and movement. The information you absorb from a five-minute walk around the block is immeasurably richer than anything you could pull from the internet: the feel of the wind, the smell of lilacs (or rotting garbage), the snippets of conversation you hear about a neighbour’s health, the sight of someone preparing to put their house up for sale by being especially liberal with the black mulch. Outside is big data … the biggest data there is. Nothing indoors comes even close.
A growing body of global scientific research continues to highlight just how beneficial to us time spent outdoors is. Humans are not only happier outdoors, we are also healthier, whether measured by markers of physical health (heart rate, air quality, levels of stress hormones) or mental (anxiety, depression, etc.). Even economic and community health are tied to outdoor exposure. In her book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, writer Florence Williams chronicles this emerging world of outdoor health research, from the foundational biophilia theory of E.O. Wilson (humans evolved to connect with nature) to cutting-edge treatments, using prolonged wilderness exposure, for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Outdoors presents solutions to seemingly insurmountable societal problems, from transit (bike lanes) to crime (busy streets are safer streets) to education (forest schools are cognitive wonderlands for children).
What exasperates Dr. Nisbet and other researchers, as well as parents, teachers, camp counsellors and anyone who tells you to get outside because it’s good for you, is just how often that simple, proven message falls on deaf ears. “At the end of the day, we come home, surf the internet and watch TV,” Dr. Nisbet told me, “but really, eating dinner in the garden or going for a walk will actually do more to restore our depleted cognitive resources. But that’s the opposite of what we tend to do.” In a 2018 survey conducted on behalf of the Nature Conservancy Canada, nine out of 10 Canadians agree that they are happier when they’ve been outdoors. And yet three-quarters of the same people surveyed agree that it’s easier to stay indoors, while two-thirds spend less time outside now than when they were kids.
For much of the pandemic, we went outside because we had nowhere else to go. I took yoga classes in a park, attended my synagogue’s services in a parking lot, hosted dinner parties in the snow and spent countless hours walking with friends. Outdoor advocates like Dr. Nisbet hoped that this forced time outdoors represented a once-in-history chance to shift the momentum of life back outdoors just a little bit. “I thought that based on the first six months of the pandemic, this was the tipping point that would give people a reset in terms of their indoor time and technology and screen time,” Dr. Nisbet said. Her research confirmed this, with surveys showing more people spending more time happily outside than before. You saw it in crowded parks and bustling sidewalks, the surging demand for bikes, tents, campsites, patio furniture, hot tubs … really any outdoor recreational gear. The balance seemed to have shifted.
But Dr. Nisbet isn’t so sure where things are headed now. “I had hoped for that, until recently,” she said, from her home in Ottawa, “because I see the rates of outdoor activity, and anecdotally, they’re not what they were early in the pandemic.” Sure, patios are still full and the parks are busy, while Zoom, Peloton and streaming service subscriptions have plateaued or declined, but go to any shopping mall on a sunny day and it’s jammed with people, happily walking around under a roof. During that first pandemic summer, I watched astonished as people lined up outside a gym for the chance to run on a treadmill by a window, in a mask, on the most perfect day for jogging outside. Most schools that attempted even the most basic crack at outdoor learning have returned to indoor classrooms. City streets that closed on weekends to accommodate joggers, cyclists and strolling families are now back to a perpetual traffic jam, their victims sealed behind glass and metal.
Politicians have resumed uttering empty promises to “study” initiatives such as sidewalk patios and legalized park alcohol consumption, as though there’s some magic number they’re somehow missing which shows that eating and drinking outside is enjoyable and a good idea. “It’s so hard to change entrenched habits,” said Dr. Nisbet, with a sigh, “that if you start to make some progress, you can so easily slip back.”
The pandemic actually made the pull of indoors stronger. Working from home is now a regular fixture for millions, but each person working from home is also someone who now no longer needs to leave the house and go out into the world to walk, bike, take a bus or even just pop outside for a break. Digital remote services such as Zoom and Amazon promise to liberate us from places, like offices and stores, but the downside is that they tether us even further to home, waiting for the next video meeting to begin or that package to arrive at the door. The more time we spend inside on digital devices, the more we grow accustomed to it.
Dr. Nisbet admits that we still don’t know how, exactly, to shift the momentum back outdoors. We know the benefits. We know the economics and the return on investment, and increasingly how time outside can shift people’s long-term views of issues such as climate change. But we have no real idea how to convince people to get off their keisters and step out into the fresh air during the 95 per cent of the day they’re inside. “We need to be getting people outdoors more,” Dr. Nisbet said, comparing it with the similarly intractable problem of getting Canadians to eat healthier and exercise. We know vegetables and walking is what our body craves, but a bag of chips and two hours of Obi-Wan Kenobi remain the default. “I don’t think it solves all the problems,” she said, “but the lack of contact with nature, and the lack of outdoor time, is causing a lot of problems.”
Where do we start? We start by shifting behaviours, through education, incentives, and, when necessary, cajoling. When it comes to the big picture, we need to make the outdoors a political priority, so that investments in outdoor infrastructure and institutions is something that moves from a “nice to have” afterthought to a necessary priority for all parties and levels of government. That means money for integrating outdoor exposure – and amenities such as picnic tables and balconies – into everything from the design of public housing, schools and hospitals, to funds for more than token research and experiments in outdoor education and health care. It means designing the sidewalks before the road, and pushing for policies that can create new societal norms, such as mandated outdoor time for employees, just as children have recess.
It means more parks of every size (big national parks, provincial campgrounds, tiny micro-urban parks), more bike lanes, outdoor hockey rinks and the crucial boring pieces to make these places work, such as concrete safety barriers and ample toilet paper. It means trying out things that seem foreign in Canada, like restaurant patios that take over parking spaces half the year, or even closing some roads permanently to cars, and then adapting our planning codes so that our cities could resemble those we talk fondly about when we return from vacation, marvelling at the vibrant street life in Rome and Rio, which we could easily have if we were brave enough. It means putting up the money to make the outdoors accessible to all by, for example, subsidizing summer camp for every child who needs it, a radically simple idea that Mara Gay recently argued for in The New York Times.
More than anything, it means shifting our individual view of the outdoors, from that separate place beyond our regular life of work, school, play and sleep that we pass through on the way from cars to buildings, or that we enjoy only on weekends, to somewhere that we build our future around. The place where we eat and drink, where we learn from and do our best work in … the wide-open setting for the everyday drama of our lives. For more than a century, we saw progress as only happening indoors. Bigger houses and malls, faster, more comfortable cars, and more efficient climate-control systems. Think of Montreal’s Big O or Toronto’s SkyDome, two monuments of concrete and metal pitched as the future of sports, whose greatest assets were roofs, but which quickly became failed icons of indoor thinking.
I like my house, bed and bidet toilet seat. I have no desire to live in the woods or till the earth on a farm. What I want is a more balanced existence, where the good that outside can bring outweighs the bad that comes with too much time inside. We have maximized the indoor world to our mental and physical detriment. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that progress can advance outdoors in ways more wondrous than anything we can put a roof over: a new park that transforms a neighbourhood, a wider sidewalk that brings a street back to life, a basketball net that builds friendships on a block, a food truck that takes a parking lot and turns it into the hub of a community.
Bringing life outside is not without cost or sacrifice, discomfort at the natural or human things you encounter there, or fierce opposition from interests and the uninterested. But the fight is worth it, because the benefits of a life lived as much as possible outdoors are immense. That’s the good life I want: to walk out my door and feel the sun on my shoulders or the sting of rain on my nose, to experience the world in all its random glory, not to shut it out and hide from it.
If you need me, I’ll be outside.
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