Was he staring at me? I locked my car door and looked back across the street at the man standing motionless on the sidewalk—and realized the object of his attention was a gray rabbit sniffing and hopping along the curb in front of my apartment building. In the middle of Denver. A metro area of around 3 million people. If you’re a nature lover, you might think you have to leave the city to get your fix, but I’ve begun to realize there’s more than meets the eye in most cities. You just have to be aware and shift your perspective. And since research is increasingly showing the benefits of time spent in nature, why not get a little dose whenever you can? Here are a few ways I’ve lately become more aware of the nature around me in the city.
Ditch your car for a minute. If you don’t have the time to drive out to a wilderness area, don’t worry. There are probably patches of nature closer than you realize. The key is to get out on your own two feet. Even better: Find an unpaved trail. Lots of city parks have dirt paths that go deeper into the park—read: farther away from vehicle noise. Strap on your hiking shoes and break free from the pavement. You might not find total solitude—and bring a friend if you’d feel more comfortable—but you’re guaranteed to feel closer to nature and breathe fresher air than you could in your car or on the street.
Take a break from the headphones. I’m a music lover and podcast addict, so it’s tempting to live with constant input—either with speakers at home or earbuds in public. But I realize I’ll never hear just how many birds are singing around me if I never turn down the noise that I’m actually in control of. Some days the birds in Denver are practically performing an opera—and they might be in your city, too. You just have to really listen.
Seek out waterways. One of the quickest ways to get a nature dose in the city is to think like a duck. Migratory birds and other animals congregate around the waterways flowing between neighborhoods and developments. They’re places left just a little bit wild in the margins of civilization. Maybe it’s just a drainage ditch or canal, or a tiny creek. My go-to spot is Cherry Creek, which flows through the heart of Denver into the South Platte River downtown. Aside from the animals I’ve seen there—only a few feet removed from busy streets—it’s also a place to simply watch the water flow, a soothing meditation in the middle of the urban chaos.
Look up. This might sound obvious, but in a city it’s easy to forget. Moving cars, people and signs at eye level constantly vie for our attention. But just taking a moment to turn your eyes upward can make a big difference—especially if you also sit on a bench or lie on the grass in a park. A soothing sea of green leaves might be swelling in the breeze above you—just out of your normal line of sight. In the winter, when trees are bare, bird nests reveal themselves. I’ve been lucky enough to spot a bald eagle above Denver’s City Park. Those same brilliant sunsets and sunrises you love watching on your vacation still happen when you’re at home—you just have to remember to take a minute to look up at them. And, while you may not see many stars in the city, catching the moon in its various phases can be a breathtaking connection to the grander universe of nature.
Don’t be afraid of the dark. Just as in the wild, the animals of the city are active around dusk, and some of them after dark. Take raccoons, for example, which are nocturnal. I’ve seen huge raccoons on the street in Denver, late in the evening when the neighborhood was quiet. Even coyotes have been known to show up within city limits. Of course, it’s important to remain aware of your surroundings if you don’t feel safe after dark. But a quiet stroll at night, with a friend perhaps, with your senses opened, might yield a deeper awareness of the nature around you than you experience during the day.
Aside from enjoying the soothing effects of being near trees, I’ve been lucky to spot foxes, raccoons, deer, rabbits and raptors—as well as the more common squirrels and geese—all within Denver’s urban core. Even though I live in a high-density neighborhood, I’ve begun to see how the trees, waterways and greenbelts are highways for animals the way streets are for humans. Sure, I still love to escape to the mountains, but I’m starting to embrace the little bits of nature I can enjoy here, too. It’s totally worth the effort.