Saturday, May 24, 2014

Urban Sanctuaries

Walking down Vancouver’s Alberni Street my head starts buzzing. I haven’t traversed this path in many years, it is quite a spot: one to see and be seen. The mugginess of the day makes me slightly detached and I float above the cacophony of beautiful people. I feel a complex mix of envy and irritation. I want both to get in and get out: to be one of the glamorous but also on the bus heading out of town. 

A woman walks by. I create a story as she passes, her muscular stride belying the stiletto heels. She’s gorgeous with her confident strut but her eyes tell me something different. They are anywhere but here—a wide ranging look of want, fear and uncertainty … as if any moment she could forget her lines and be thrown off the stage.

I feel, on the other hand, already in the theatre wings, the forgotten understudy. I want to yell, I know what you need to say, just ask … or, better yet, to just tell her she’s okay; she’s enough.

I walk into a chocolate patisserie to buy a birthday gift for a friend. The noise is enough to compete with a pub during NHL playoffs. Once again, the beauty is off the charts: men and woman alike, poised and posturing; seeing and being seen. I yell my order, pay and quickly exit, the chocolate already melting in my overheated hands.

The moist air blankets me once more with that unworldly feeling of away-ness as I walk to the bus loop. My nerves are awake with caution and I jump at sudden movements and spikes of sound. It is not an alive feeling, more nervous and over-caffeinated. I distract myself with my smart phone.

The bus ride out of town that I hoped would bring relief settles down with an edge of despair. Miles of pavement pass by the window. I want out of this cement coated dreamland but I know, with melancholic awareness, that the suburbia to which I head will be but a continuation.

I used to desire the buzz of city life, crave the centre of the action; be one of the beautiful. A small part of me, however strange, still does. But I know it is no longer possible. My capacity for such excessive stimuli is on limited supply. Trips into town are best when they are short sojourns and when I know that escape is not only possible but immediately available. A stronger fantasy is one of an isolated cabin not far from a creek. I want trees—big ones to console and nurture—and I want quiet so I can sit and listen to the stillness.

Don’t get wrong, I find beauty in the man-made, both structure and mechanical. I love the sleek lines of a Jaguar XJ, the towering waterfront lift cranes, and majestic bridges that connect with sublime elegance.  But its nature that I crave.  

It’s funny how we learn to survive, even thrive in environments that ultimately threaten our existence. I know of people who prefer a paved sidewalk to a forested path; a day in the mall to time spent by the water. To each his own but research shows that humans need nature.

A 2010 study by the University of Rochester found that “ … individuals consistently felt more energetic when they spent time in natural settings or imagined themselves in such situations ... being outside in nature for just 20 minutes in a day was enough to significantly boost vitality levels.”

The study goes on to conclude that “… the presence of nature had an independent energizing effect above that of being outdoors. In other words, conclude the authors, being outdoors was vitalizing in large part because of the presence of nature.”

Which brings me to a recent blog by David Suzuki, In the Urban Green Revolution, Small is Big.  In it he tells of how individuals and small community groups are changing their urban environments for the better. He writes:

Small, creative projects that make cities more livable are popping up in unexpected places: alleys, front yards, vacant lots and parking spaces. Whether its yarn-bombed street furniture, roadway parking turned to mini-parkettes or guerrilla gardens in overlooked spaces, these often-unauthorized interventions are helping to transform properties and neighbourhoods, one light, quick, cheap tweak at a time.

I am humbled by these urban warriors who bring sanctuary to city life. While I hunt for exits these environmentally inspired artists are transforming communities for the betterment of humankind. I applaud their work and am forever grateful when I stumble upon their creativity. When escape is impossible, they change my survival strategies into moments of joy.

For more information, and especially on how there is actual funding available for such projects, click here.

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