Did you know that there’s a dormant volcano sitting in the middle of Portland, Oregon? Or that there’s a neighborhood in Seattle built around a massive boulder, transported there from Canada by glaciers during the last ice age? Urban environments hold all kinds of unique natural phenomena like this and offer some of the most accessible outdoor and earth science wonders that anyone can discover.
As a field geologist and wetlands scientist that often works in urban environments, I am trained to see beyond the steel and concrete structures of the city to find the inherent natural beauty hidden beneath its surface. But even with all my formal education, the best tools I have for urban naturalism I learned as a kid, exploring the neighborhoods, parks, and wild corners of my hometown in Portland, Oregon.
Tip #1: When choosing your next urban hike, pick a route based on potential greenspaces and viewpoints. Places like riverfronts, high hills, ridgeline drives, and older neighborhoods with mature trees are all great places to explore.
Like most life paths, there was a pivotal experience that started it all. For me, it was a particular walk on a nice summer day when I was six, to the top of Mount Tabor Park. It’s a massive park up the street from where I lived, with a basketball court, an amphitheater cut into the hillside, and a viewpoint near open air reservoirs that overlooked the city.
At the viewpoint, you could watch the weather roll in across the city. Friends and I would wager our predictions of how many minutes the rain on the far west hills would take to reach us. Back at the amphitheater we would collect handfuls of pale yellow-orange stones spotted with tiny holes. These stones were pumice, a type of rock formed from magma that is violently ejected during explosive eruptions. It turned out that the park I lived down the street from was a volcano, the conduit of which was visible in the angled rock layers that made up the circular wall that surrounded the amphitheater and basketball courts.
Tip #2: Get out early! Observe the changing light, the morning activity of animals, especially birds, and be away from the noise and distractions of the bustling city.
To be able to clearly see the architecture of the inside of a volcano in a place I had driven and walked past so many times completely blew my mind. The idea that volcanoes could exist in the city blew it even more. But there was more to it than that; seeing the volcano’s insides for the first time sparked a hungry curiosity in me–spurring a stream of questions about the volcano and the broader natural world. Questions like, how long ago did it erupt? Could it erupt again? What would that be like? And other questions, like why does the rain come from the West? And was it really okay that those ducks in the reservoir were swimming (and probably pooping) in our water? Most importantly, for my future as a volcanologist, I wondered how molten lava from the depths of the Earth turned into the pumice stones I held in my hand?
Tip #3: Take advantage of urban areas that are curated natural spaces like cemeteries, nurseries, and formal gardens.
My awakening to the natural world happened in a cityscape–not in a far-distant wild country, but in my own neighborhood. With so many of us living in urban places, it’s important to remember that we can all have meaningful and even life-changing experiences involving the natural world, without having to travel outside of the city. You also don’t have to have a scientist’s eye to experience urban naturalism, you just have to learn how to look for it.
Here are some practical steps on how to enhance your next adventure through the urban wildscape:
- Learn to actively observe with fresh eyes - Look closely and into the distance, up and down. Take note of specific patterns, colors, and movement.
- Search out oddities - Excavation holes, abandoned plots, hidden courtyards and gardens, bioswales, the curated rocks of civic building floors and columns–these are all rich and abundant sources of natural history.
- Engage and use all your senses - Collect leaves, stones, or wildflowers to press. Draw a picture of the wildlife that peaks your interest or write about what you see, hear, smell, and experience. Take pictures or just sit in stillness.
- Ask questions - Ask how and why. Search out those answers while you’re out exploring (a great benefit of urban naturalism is the stable cellular service).
Over the years I have found curious urban wild spaces to explore, like the Witches Castle in Portland’s Forest Park and the nearby International Rose Test Garden, or the Wedgewood erratic in Seattle. Now, on a sunny day, there’s hundreds of people using that once quiet place, and I hope that they take the time to stand at the open core of the volcano and look with wonder. So don’t limit yourself only to ‘wilderness’ experiences that are far from home. Aside from all the new things you can learn and discover, urban hiking is a great way to practice your navigation skills, test out some new gear, and improve your endurance.