Wellbeing at the Mountaintop

San Juan Island, WA (July 13, 2020) – A community gathering to enjoy the sunset. (Photo credit: Olivia Zimmerman)


The trail winds around another switchback; your chest is burning and your legs are shaking. Your ankle is still throbbing from post-holing through remnants of late spring snow, and your hip belt has rubbed your skin raw. You fight back the urge to acknowledge that inner voice asking whether this is actually worth it. And then you reach the crest, overlooking craggy peaks that resemble cathedrals and alpine lakes colored hues of turquoise by glacial silt. Wildflowers paint the meadows, sweeping into a forest lush with birdsong and smells of earth. The pain is gone, the sweat cools you and your heartbeat slows to match the flow of the quietly melting snow.

This is a moment of utter bliss, of connecting with the muscles in your body and the determination in your mind, of letting the incessant and relentless thoughts fall away from you and harmonizing with your inhalations of mountain air, of remembering that you are an animal and this planet is your home.

Flocks of urban dwellers leave their warm beds before sunrise for the privilege of experiencing these moments of serenity, and perhaps some mild but worthwhile physical struggles along the way. The effort to reach these sanctuaries, miles from the nearest road and silent but for the sounds of wildlife, offer a reprieve unparalleled by human-built structures. These are places to reunite with the natural world, to stop and revel in the splendor of being alive. These are places to be restored.

There are compelling psychological ties between mental wellbeing and time spent in nature. E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis theorizes humanity’s inherent, genetically based propensity to be drawn towards and interact with natural places. Wilson’s body of work deserves a more critical analysis than there is space for here: in particular, his recent writings exhibit some problematic blind spots in their call for the drastic act of converting half of the planet’s land to human-free conservation areas. This “fortress” approach to conservation, without human presence, has cruelly displaced Indigenous communities, and is motivated by white settlers’ failure to understand that humans are creatures that have the ability to co-exist with the land.

Despite its shortcomings, there are useful takeaways from Wilson’s work in the realm of evolutionary psychology* and human-nature interactions. This research has proposed that adaptive learning throughout human’s existence has led to complex emotional responses to nature, on a spectrum from positive to negative, relaxed to anxious and desirable to aversive, all from a deeply fundamental place. The richness of moments humans can experience within the natural world are vast, and from the perspective of the biophilia hypothesis, essential to human development.

So what happens when outdoor experiences are not equally available to everyone?

Globally, many societies are becoming increasingly distanced from the nonhuman natural world. Studies in this area look at lifestyles across the US and consider the correlation between increased dependence on technology and sedentary lifestyles. The impact of this relationship can be seen throughout all populations, providing ample opportunity to consider how mental and physical health can be depleted in absence of nature, and restored in its presence. A form of “generational amnesia” is occurring, wherein urban development, increased reliance on screens, pollution, and safety concerns are creating diminished opportunities for individuals to build relationships with nature from a young age.

Studies suggest that the relationship an individual has developed* with nature in childhood can have an impact on how connected they feel to outdoor spaces later in life. One can quickly begin to see how those who have not consistently had access to outdoor green or blue spaces throughout their life are placed in a negative feedback loop, in which this priceless ecosystem service is outside of their reach.

To observe the manifestations of innate human response to natural spaces, a thought-provoking study by Dr. Peter Kahn of UW’s Department of Psychology compared physiological impacts of participants in an office across three scenarios; those with a real view of an outdoor scene through a window, those with an electronic display of an outdoor scene, and those with no view of the outdoors. The authors found that participants with the window view experienced both a decreased heart rate and increased physiological recovery from low level stress, while those with either an electronic simulation of nature or no nature did not experience restorative responses. These findings have important implications for society’s increased reliance on screens and technology, in addition to their illustration of human-nature relationships.

It goes without saying that this year has posed its challenges for mental health. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs, creating severe economic strain as a backdrop for the pandemic crisis. We are going on month nine of a modified stay-at-home order, and demand for social justice reform has highlighted the shortcomings of government from the local to the national level. When one considers all the ways in which people’s typical resources for wellbeing are atrophied, such as seeking community and achieving purpose and routine through work, it is no surprise that experts report that the nation is in a mental health crisis.

One of the few activities that has been deemed safe by authorities is time spent in the outdoors, and many outlets are calling for people to “stay close to home” and “utilize amenities in one’s own neighborhood.” Individuals have increased their outdoor activity during the pandemic, both near to and far from home, which raises questions on how the impacts of well-documented disparities in access to green spaces may be exacerbated during this time.

Map of Seattle zoning circa 1936, coded ‘best’ (green) to ‘hazardous’(red). Source: Mapping Inequality


In a powerful paper* published in Science, the authors–including Dr. Christopher Schell of UW Tacoma’s School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences and SMEA’s own Dr. Cleo Woelfle-Erskine–discuss systemic racism in urban environments. They highlight the “luxury effect,” wherein biodiversity in cities, particularly plant biodiversity, has a positive correlation with neighborhood income. Through an in-depth analysis of cities across the US, the authors illustrate the consequences of the systematic suppression of people of color that occurred during the government-permitted period of “redlining” between 1933-1968. During this period, neighborhoods were categorized based on their desirability and strength of potential investment, and Black Americans were denied loans and viewings in neighborhoods ranked more desirable. This has led to a reality in which many Americans live in neighborhoods that do not provide access to clean, restorative outdoor spaces, amongst many other inequities.

Though this official policy was ended decades ago, the impacts of redlining are still heavily observed in many cities in the US. This has multitudes of negative impacts on communities, including an established deficit of tree cover and biodiversity in previously redlined neighborhoods. It is important to note that these weakened ecosystems have negative impacts outside of psychological well-being; diminished ecosystems are less resilient and therefore more prone to further losses. Areas with less tree cover also have reduced species gene flow, and disruptions to species’ movement can reduce presence of native species, leading to an increase of pests and facilitating spread of zoonotic disease. Lack of tree cover can cause “urban heat islands,” wherein neighborhoods experience temperatures up to ten degrees greater than more green locales. These neighborhood differences create a situation in which non-white communities are more vulnerable to environmental degradation due to pollution and climate change, and less able to receive the benefits of biodiversity and green spaces.

Racial disparities in access to nature can be seen close to home, but are also well documented in public lands and national parks. Reports indicate that non-Hispanic whites, though comprising 63% of the US population, encompass 88-95% of all visitors to public lands. Latinx communities make up 3.8-6.7% of visitors and African Americans make up 1-1.2%, proportions that are far from representative of their population within the US. These disparities are thought to be perpetuated by a variety of barriers, including the cost of outdoor recreation, accessibility due to disparities in income and paid time off, inequalities in early childhood experiences in the outdoors, and the racist origins of many national parks. Similar racial imbalances can be observed in the workforce of the National Parks Service.

Research examining systemic racism in urban environments and public lands, in juxtaposition with media encouraging people to take advantage of the outdoors as a mental health practice during this era of COVID-19, highlights yet another dimension of environmental inequity. This demands rethinking and restructuring our communities and outdoor spaces.

From safely walking through an urban greenspace to summiting a mountain, human wellbeing is inextricably connected to time outdoors. Collectively, Western society has found itself estranged from the rhythms and elements of the natural world, and because there are large disparities in access to such resources, decolonizing Western society’s relationship to the outdoors is a vital first step.

This work could start by confronting the racist beliefs of renowned and frequently admired early American environmentalists, and by demanding that anti-racist trainings become standard for institutions whose work originates in or is informed by that heritage.  It could continue by addressing disparities in access, perhaps by advancing the goals of the land back movement as the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust is doing in California.

So often, the task of demanding equity falls upon the marginalized. Becoming an ally and an advocate for justice in the outdoors is a critical first step for those who have never had to consider safety on a trail, how difficult it is for many to get a quick serotonin boost from a walk around the neighborhood, or how their well-intentioned support of conservation areas might result in evicting people from their homes. By taking action we can shift the focus from individual to collective wellbeing and restore equity to all spaces, be they urban, public, green, or blue.

Side by side images from communities in Washington State that are approximately 4.5 miles apart. On the left is the wealthier city of University Place, and on the right is a less wealthy neighborhood in Tacoma. Source: UW News (Photo illustration by: Megan Kitagawa/UW Tacoma, used with permission)


* Contact Currents editor-in-chief James Lee at james00@uw.edu for access to: 

  1. Broom, C. (2017). Exploring the relations between childhood experiences in nature and young adults’ environmental attitudes and behaviours. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 33, 34-47. doi: 10.1017/aee.2017.1
  2. Gullone, E. (2000). The biophilia hypothesis and life in the 21st century: Increasing mental health or increasing pathology? Journal of Happiness Studies, 1(3), 293-321. doi: 10.1023/A:1010043827986
  3. Schell, C. J., Dyson, K., Fuentes, T. L., Roches, S. D., Harris, N. C., Miller, D. S.,                                                                                  Woelfle-Erskine, C. A., & Lambert, M. R. (2020). The ecological and evolutionary consequences of systemic racism in urban environments. Science, 369(6510). doi: 10.1126/science.aay4497