Have you heard of “nature-deficit disorder“? Coined by author and journalist Richard Louv, the term refers to possible negative consequences to individual health and the social fabric as children stay more time indoors and away from physical contact with the natural world. (If you are interested in learning about nature-deficit disorder, please read Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods.) While nature-deficit disorder is not a formal medical diagnosis, some researchers have suggested that exposure to nature can be important to good health. I believe this to be true. I often find myself feeling better or more refreshed simply by spending some time outdoors in a park or natural area. According to the National Recreation and Park Association, more time spent in parks and green spaces can help individuals fight against mental health issues like depression, anxiety and stress (see this fact sheet). Thus making sure that all people have access to parks and outdoor programming is a important way to increase and multiply these positive effects on health and quality of life for communities.
For those of us who may feel quite disconnected from nature or need some “Vitamin N” as Louv calls it, what should we do? One answer may be to just find the nearest park to you and spend some quality moments there. But this may not be the best solution if your neighborhood park is too well used and overly built up with amenities, leaving little space for trees and areas for quiet enjoyment. How about state and national parks? Of course, those are great, but many of us, especially urban dwellers, do not live in close proximity to such parks and may even find these vast recreation areas intimidating. So what is the happy medium? If you live in the Los Angeles area, I highly recommend starting with nature centers and botanical gardens which are wonderful places for all, especially children, to learn more about, gain an appreciation for, and be with nature.
There are numerous nature centers across Los Angeles County, some of which are operated by the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR). One example is the Stoneview Nature Center which is an urban sanctuary nestled in the Blair Hills of Culver City with scenic views of the Los Angeles basin from the Santa Monica Mountains to the Hollywood Hills. The center is a key component of the Park to Playa Trail, which is a corridor that will connect state, county and city parks into a recreational trail from Playa Del Rey to Baldwin Hills. This five-acre site offers visitors an opportunity to discover a new passion for the outdoors, and learn more about health and wellness through meditative garden spaces, inspiring artwork, a demonstration garden, and community kitchen. Another popular facility is the Eaton Canyon Natural Area and Nature Center, which was reopened in November of 1998, replacing the old one that was destroyed in the Altadena fire of October 27, 1993. The 7,600 square-foot building contains many fascinating displays, live animals, offices, classrooms, an auditorium, restrooms, and an information desk/gift shop. Examples of other nature centers include the Whittier Narrows Nature Center and the Placerita Canyon Nature Center.
Los Angeles County is also home to numerous botanical gardens, such as The Arboretum, Descanso Gardens, and the South Coast Botanic Garden. These gardens are safe and pleasant places where adults and children alike can learn a lot about nature and take leisurely strolls. They sometimes host special events which help to attract new visitors, including those who initially may not be inclined to visit a botanical garden. For example, about three years ago, the South Coast Botanic Garden hosted an exhibit called Nature Connects which my daughter and I enjoyed immensely. It was an interactive art installation consisting of 15 nature-themed sculptures constructed entirely from almost half a million LEGO bricks (see this article for my review). Back in December 2018, my family also visited The Arboretum and Descanso Gardens where we experienced the amazing Moonlight Forest and Enchanted: Forest of Lights shows, respectively. Both shows were very popular and were successful in drawing many families and children to the facilities in the evenings when they are typically closed.
Transit to Parks and Open Space
Related to the availability of facilities for people to experience nature is their ability to get to such places. Most of the nature centers and botanical gardens I referenced above are within populated areas of L.A. County and are generally more accessible via public transit than outlying state or national recreation areas. However, improvements must be made to ensure that everyone, especially those from underserved communities who are more likely to be public transit users, can access parks and open spaces without a car. Recognizing this and at the direction of its board, Metro has been working on a Transit to Parks Strategic Plan which will be released later this year. The Plan will address how the public can get better access to parks and open space areas and offer recommendations that focus on solutions for car-less, transit-dependent residents to get to the parks that they wish to explore. These may include public shuttles, bike lanes, greenways, programmatic incentives, creative partnerships, non-traditional, or shared ride options. As part of the Plan preparation process, Metro has compiled a study summarizing 15 examples of transit-to-parks access solutions, the majority of which are shuttles and buses that link people to parks from a consolidated parking area or a transit stop.
Nature on Wheels
Another aspect of this discussion is the use of mobile museums to inform and educate children about nature. One example is the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR)’s River Rover which is an effort to “bring the river to the people.” The River Rover was designed to educate visitors of all ages, taking them through a tour of the River’s past, present, and future. Guests learn about the L.A. River watershed at an interactive display table, touch beaver and coyote pelts, listen to the song of the Least Bell’s Vireo, and design the River as they want to see in the future. Another example is the Natural History Museum (NHM)’s two mobile museums which offer archaeology and ocean experiences in 50-foot tractor trailers. The main objective of the archaeology experience is to capture and cultivate student interest in archaeology and science, while the ocean experience focuses on marine research and exploration, and offers participants the chance to experience what it is like to be a scientist working out in the field.
Some may dispute whether there is really such a thing as nature-deficit disorder, but it is clear from research and my own personal experience that there are indeed benefits to better understanding, appreciating, and experiencing nature. Nature centers and botanical gardens are good places to explore and nurture a love of nature, especially if our local parks are too crowded and/or built-up to offer a nature experience and if state or national parks are too distant or seem overwhelming. Here in Los Angeles, there are also noteworthy efforts to improve access to parks and open space for those without cars and to bring nature to school children via mobile museums. In addition, we will soon have a new resource and guide to explore nature in L.A. when Wild LA becomes available next month. Co-written by NHM’s Lila Higgins and Greg Pauly, the book tells the stories of L.A.’s nature, its plants and animals, and how we humans interact with all of them. Finally, I want to end with a reminder to everyone (myself included) to always find time to disconnect from technology and enjoy nature. After all, we can all use a little bit more Vitamin N in our lives.
Note: Photos by author.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.