Every year on Earth Day, my teachers would remind us to “get some nature!” This always confused me. Why would I do that? Why would I go outside and sit in the dying grass? Did my teachers want me to sit by the one tree in my neighborhood? That just never seemed very appealing.
I spent most of my life in the Southside of Chicago. Like many low-income urban areas, there was little greenery in my neighborhood. Similarly, our apartment building did not have a backyard, just a concrete slab in its place. I spent all of my time inside, in front of the TV. Fortunately, my mother was always watching documentaries, my favorites of which were nature documentaries. I could not believe that the places I saw in these documentaries, so colorful and vibrant, existed. They seemed almost alien to me—the exact opposite of what I was surrounded by. I dreamed about visiting the raw and untamed natural areas that were depicted.
Admittedly, I had a very idealistic mindset when it came to nature. It is because of this and my environment (or lack thereof), that I became determined to find a way out of my small apartment and experience nature in person.
I got that chance when I was fortunate enough to go to college. I attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I decided to major in Natural Resource and Environmental Sciences, thinking it was the best way to not only see nature but also to protect it. Almost three hours away from Chicago, I was able to experience nature in a way I never had before. The campus itself was beautiful, especially the main quad. I had never seen so many trees—and such large ones! There was even an arboretum a little way off campus. I quickly became a regular visitor. Although these areas were neither national parks nor untamed wilderness, it made me realize that nature wasn’t as unattainable as I had once thought.
However, I could not fight a nagging feeling every time I visited a park or nature reserve. Why was there nothing like this where I was from? Why was our community so isolated from any form of nature? There was no easily accessible park or green space where I lived. The only green areas were towards the Northside of Chicago, a much wealthier area. I couldn’t understand why my community was neglected the most basic resources, all because of where we were situated. I knew then that it was not only my job to protect nature but also to make it more accessible to those who lived in communities like mine. They needed to see nature, whether it was in its most basic form, like a local park, or in its wildest, like in a national park. I wanted to ensure that children did not grow up just staring at nature scenes on TV screens and in picture books; that they could just go outside and experience it in real life.
Something I learned in college that resonated with me was the concept of “nature deficit disorder.” Put simply, a lack of nature results in a variety of health issues, both physical and mental. This is especially prominent in children. Access to some level of nature has been proven to alleviate stress, creativity, and other ailments. That’s why artists, writers, and so many people go into nature for inspiration—it literally stimulates˜creativity. This made me realize that there were entire communities stuck in concrete jungles like I was, suffering from this disorder. What was the point of working to protect nature if a vast swath of the population couldn’t see it? It shouldn’t be restricted to those who are privileged.
This understanding helped me shift my concentration within my major, from resource conservation to human dimensions. Previously, I had goals of becoming a scientist and working in the field but I realized I could do more for my community if I could learn more about how people interacted with the environment and the best way to revive the broken connection between the two. Currently, I am volunteering with the Illinois Green Alliance to become a sustainable facilities mentor, so I can implement sustainable development models in communities. I am planning on working in the neighborhoods I spent most of my childhood in, so I can begin to battle the inequity that we have faced for so long. Since I spent most of my time in college learning the scientific side of the environmental movement, I decided to go back to school to learn more about the social sciences. I will be getting my master’s degree in Energy and Sustainability from Northwestern University in the fall so I can further expand my knowledge and use it to improve my community and those like it. Currently, I am planning on concentrating in sustainable economics, so I can make the business case for the practice.
As we approach Earth Day, I am reminded that the day celebrates and highlights the importance of the environment and the need for accessibility.
What started as a desire to leave my environment has ultimately brought me back to it, with a new goal in mind: bring nature to my neighborhood. I am still chasing those pictures on my screen and in my books. I just want to make sure I am not the only one enjoying those scenic views. Everyone deserves and needs to see them, and I want to ensure that happens. Maybe one day, I will help build a park in one of those old, abandoned lots.
Jennifer Coronel is a recent graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she earned her B.S. in Natural Resource and Environmental Sciences with minors in Sustainability and Business. She hopes to work in consulting and help companies become more sustainable after she obtains her M.S. in Energy and Sustainability from Northwestern University.
The views and opinions presented in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Aspen Institute. Any similarities to the people and events in this blog post are purely coincidental.