Health Travels & Exploring

Finding nature in downtown cities

Chicago skyline beyond the park.

I love to travel and have been fortunate to visit many great places. All fun and all very different in space and culture. I like to mix up my trips with low-key, big space places, like Montana and Alaska, to bustling cities, like Chicago and Los Angeles. My recent trips to Chicago, New York City and San Francisco remind me how much fun downtown cities are, full of energy, excitement, restaurants, shops, people, so much!

I’ve toyed with moving to a downtown area in the past, although one city has never captured my heart enough to make the move (San Francisco is pretty close!). But I also have a struggle with the idea of being a ‘city girl’ and living in a downtown surrounded by concrete – I love the energy, convenience of walking everywhere and perks of city living, but nature soothes and heals my soul and mind so I need trees and green spaces.

It seems that more and more cities are recognizing the importance of keeping nature among the cement, glass and construction of labryinths of city centers. I often find myself drawn to these green spaces and parks. As much as I like the excitement and hustle of city life, I also need the peace and beauty of nature.

I enjoy seeing others in the park, sitting to relax, play games, talking with others, reading, eating, walking through for a shortcut or a moment of quiet. It makes me feel a little connection with like-minded people, who also need a few minutes or hours of Mother Nature. I know, that probably sounds silly, but I’m learning to listen to who and what bring me joy, and this is it.

San Francisco’s Alamo Square

On a recent trip to San Francisco, one of my favorite cities, I walked all over. From North Beach to the Financial District to Chinatown and more. I love the streets of San Francisco, even if my thighs and calves screamed the first few days (you really don’t realize how FLAT metro Detroit is until you walk or bike in other parts of the state and country!). I love the various districts and wandering along Fisherman’s Wharf. I also was thrilled at the parks sprinkled throughout the downtown. I spent hours in Presidio park near the Golden Gate Bridge. It helped that it was sunny and warm, and after weeks of Michigan’s cold, dreary days, I was hesitant to move from my grassy spot for fear the weather would turn on me! Ha. But, honestly, it was simply beautiful. Busy with people enjoying the space and day. Venturing to Alamo Square another day provided breathtaking views of the bay and downtown, and also the Painted Ladies (the colorful row houses found in television’s Full House). There is a dog park, activity courts, picnic tables and more to enjoy the outdoors.

Other cities, such as New York City and Chicago, have great parks in the middle of their skyscrapers and streets. During a visit to Chicago last fall, I had a few hours of free time on an unusually warm fall day. I didn’t feel like shopping so considered a visit to the museum. As I walked in that direction, I cut through Millennium Park. I sat on a bench for a short while, enjoying talking with others and people watching. As I resumed my walk, I found myself cutting through other parks. I soon decided to forgo the museum so I could enjoy the fresh air and parks.

Belle Isle Park offers great nature spots with Detroit in the background.

Even Detroit has made efforts to increase green space, or improve existing parks, as the downtown area explodes with growth. Construction and upgrade of the river walk brings thousands of people to the area, especially during nice weather. There are playgrounds, picnic spots and more. Belle Isle Park, now managed by the state’s Department of Natural Resources, has become one of my favorite biking spots after the upgrades (read my post about this great spot). I love being on the small island park in the center of Detroit and Canada.

There are lot of benefits to spending time in nature – reduced stress, mental anxiety, and much more. Several studies cited in Psychological Science journal found that even a few minutes in nature restored mental energy, lowered levels of cortisol (a stress indicator), improved concentration, caused feelings of awe and joy, and even improved short-term memory. Those are good enough reasons for me to find a park in the middle of the city!

Where’s your favorite park in the middle of a city?