In my PhD research my participants, who were all connected to outdoor education, expressed some of the conflict they feel when trying to do the outdoor activities they enjoy. I understand this challenge personally. As an outdoor person I’m inclined to run, bike, canoe, ski, etc. This is awesome. I enjoy the activities and they contribute to both my physical and mental well being. But there is also a dark side. I live in an urban area, and while Edmonton does have some really great places to do all of these activities I have to travel to get to them. I have to drive to the cross country ski trails or the river to go canoeing. This creates the conflict because now I’m contributing to the destruction of the very nature that I seek to sustain me. As a consequence of this dilemma, I have been running exclusively from places I’m already at. I run from home most often and that means that the closest I get to running in a peaceful, natural environment is the utility corridor with the constant hum of the power lines and no real trees in sight. I can’t say for certain that this is contributing to my general lack of enthusiasm for these runs but it seems like a likely candidate.
Pretty et al (2006) conducted a meta-analysis of 10 different studies on green exercise or exercise in nature and found that all the benefits that I enjoy plus a few more I’ve never thought about. Self esteem, anger, fatigue, depression, and anxiety were all improved by green exercise with different types of exercise affecting some areas more than others.
The problem is, it isn’t just about being outside. It is being in nature and our urban environments are largely lacking in these features. As a consequence social sustainability which includes the well being of individuals mental and physical health is in conflict with environmental sustainability because of how we have laid out our cities. Getting into nature to exercise most often requires me to drive, particularly since my wrist is still not quite up to biking. Hence my dilemma. Do I have to make a choice? Is it either/or? But that isn’t sustainable either. It is dilemmas like this that contribute to sustainability as a wicked problem.