Lying on your back in the Great Lawn, your feet flexed into the warm grass, the breeze whispers memories and you forget where you are. Time detours, and you could get lost in the openness and calm, save for the occasional clinking of a metal bat and the cheers of yuppies on their night off. Sitting up, you can see the skyline just beyond the pitches and trees, with two dozen buildings and as many cranes looming, working, imposing on your rest.
We live in cities because they’re stimulating, they’re efficient, and they put us in contact with the rest of the world. They stack 8 million people on top of one another in condos, offices and entertainment districts; hurl us through underground tunnels as we scramble to our destinations; and send crews to extract our carefully sorted waste like clockwork. And in their effort to keep the cogs turning, they have – intentionally or inadvertently – become the most progressive environmentalists of our time.
Living in a city is one of the greenest things you can do. Metropolises like New York and San Francisco boast among the lowest rates of per capita energy consumption in the United States, far lower than the national average (and even the state most synonymous with “greenness”: Vermont). This is due to the compact, dense design of cities – think the CityCenter mixed-use development in Washington DC, where you can wake up, shop for groceries, go to the gym, pick up your dry cleaning and access the metro all in a 3 block radius. In these environments, bicycles, subway, and walking are often the transportation method of choice. In Manhattan, this is true for more than ¾ of all residents, most of which don’t even own a car.
Yet paradoxically, as a majority of the world’s population now dwells in the urban green oasis of cities, we increasingly lose more and more contact with the natural environment. We forget to wander alongside the river and watch the leaves fall.
This contact is crucial to our self-preservation, the enrichment of our souls. If we are to reflect, detach from the materiality of the world, we must seek out nature. Ralph Waldo Emerson exhorted, “But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come down [allow him to perceive] the perpetual presence of the sublime.” Nature offers pleasure, reinvigoration, stimulation of the human intellect. It is the source of all beauty and the inspiration for all art. Without it, the world becomes a hollow routine.