Urban Ecotherapy: Practices to Help You Access the Healing Power of the Nature in the City

by Amanda Leigh Morrison, MFT Intern at Holos Institute

In just over 200 years, the percentage of people living in urban settings worldwide has gone from 3% to more than 50%.  As our population continues to increase exponentially, so too will the number of those of us living in cities.  Large cities and megalopolises seem to be the wave of the future.  In just a blip on the Universal time scale, we have gone from a species that lives in close proximity to the wild and pastoral landscapes that we co-evolved with, to one that is confounded at even the simplest of natural phenomena.  For most of us living in developed countries, we have forgotten where our food comes from (the soil of the earth, not the aisles in the supermarket); we have lost track of the cycles of the sun and the moon; we have forgotten that many medicines grow wild in our own backyards; and we are less likely to look to the earth for insight, solace, and inspiration.

Recently, however, there is a growing realization that re-membering our deeply intertwined relationship with the earth may actually be vital to our wellbeing. Studies have begun to support the importance of this growing awareness, showing that regular experience of the natural world is a psychological, physiological and social imperative.  In 2009, Frances Kuo, professor of Psychology and Natural Resources, and Environmental Science at the University of Illinois, published a study that shows humans living in environments absent of trees, plants and other ecological elements show patterns of  “social, psychological and physical breakdown that are strikingly similar to those observed in other animals that have been deprived of their natural habitat.”  Some of these patterns include an “increase in aggression, disrupted parenting patterns, and the disruption of social hierarchies”. She also found that humans that do not have regular contact with a natural environment are more likely to have impulse control and attention disorders*.

Kuo’s work and other similar studies are part of an emerging consciousness that the separation of humans and the earth is detrimental to our wellbeing, and practices and activities that are in direct contact with the natural world are essential to our healthy development.
Psychotherapists who work from an ecopsychological perspective, often called ecotherapists, are a growing part of this movement to reconnect humans to our earthly home, they encourage people to have a more conscious and nourishing relationship with the planet.  They work from the belief that connecting to the natural world can relieve stress; increase cognition and attention; and allow for a more satisfying and happy life.  It is this belief that drew me to this field, and compelled me to join the Holos Institute as a psychotherapy intern.  In addition to my practice at Holos, I also teach ecopsychology and other subjects at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

As a psychotherapy intern and teacher of ecopsychology, I have witnessed the profound impact that understanding and experiencing a sense of interconnectedness to the natural world can have on people.  I have seen both my students and clients gain a new awareness of their place in the natural world and find both inspiration and healing as they have incorporated this consciousness and understanding into their lives.

As the population of urban dwellers continues to grow, an important and often unaddressed issue regarding ecopsychology is the need to do this work in an urban setting.  It takes a little more creativity to practice these principles in the city, but it can be done!  The following are some of the ways that I encourage both students and clients to incorporate healing, earth-based practices into their urban lifestyle:

Urban Farming and Community Gardens: Studies have shown that exposure to plants can be a wonderful mood enhancer and stress reduction technique, as well as providing benefits such as increasing cognitive and physical functioning, improving self-esteem, and alleviating depression**.  In many cities, there is a growing urban farming and community garden movement.  This is a great way to get your hands in the earth and reconnect to the age-old experience of growing food and ornamental plants. Urban farming and gardening is also a fantastic way to combat loneliness by building community with some of your neighbors.

Walking instead of driving: Not only will you be helping to combat global warming by reducing your carbon footprint, you will also experience the psychological and physiological benefits of the exercise, and exposure to all that is growing in your city. Walking allows you to literally stop and smell the roses.  You might even begin to identify some of the wild and cultivated plants in your neighborhood.  You would be surprised at how many edibles and medicinals are growing all over the place!

Time in city parks and green spaces: According to Craig Chalquist, educator and editor of the book, Ecotherapy, “research consistently supports the connection between getting active outside and improved psychological health.***”  All major cities have parks and green spaces.  The early developers of our cities realized that this was a crucial element in the design of a city.  Spend quiet, contemplative time in the parks, reflecting, observing, and listening for birds.  Or, instead of going to the gym, you might try taking your workout routine to the park. You might be surprised at how healing just a short amount of time in a park can be.

Food and Farmers Markets: Developing a conscious relationship to the food on our plate can be a deeply satisfying and rewarding experience, and an easy place to connect with nature.  You can expand your relationship to your food by growing your own food or getting to know the farmers that tend the crops that make up your favorite recipes.  Many cities are experiencing a swelling of the available farmers markets.  This is another great place to get out and experience your community.

Mindful Movement Practices: Considering that our bodies are indeed nature, (consisting of the same basic materials that make up the rest of the earth) using movement and body awareness can be an ideal place to begin to heal our sense of disconnection. Mindful movement practices like yoga, tai chi, dance, and sensory awareness allow you to explore and experience the vast wilderness within your own body.

These are just a few ways that those of us that live in the city can begin to access the healing power of the earth without leaving the city.  Most often, when we think about ecotherapy, we do not think of sprawling urban environs as the ideal setting.  But, as the world’s metropolitan populations continue to increase, we need to understand how the principles and practices of ecopsychology can be effectively applied in the confines of the city.

As one way to embody these practices, a colleague and I have begun offering daylong urban ecopsychology workshops in San Francisco to help people deepen their relationship to the environment and their community.  The day includes teachings as well as experiential exercises intended to inform and engage people in the various ways that relating to the earth can bring healing, inspiration and insight.  Our next offering is on July 25th in Glen Park Canyon.  We welcome those interested in this offering so feel free to email me for further information at amanda@holosinstitute.net.

Building ties to the natural world is not only essential to our individual and collective health and wellbeing, it is also imperative to the vitality and wellness of the planet.  For without this conscious relationship to the planet, we lose our love and reverence for the natural world.  This innate affection for nature, called biophilia by biologist E.O. Wilson, is that capacity in humans to find awe and adoration for the earth****.  Having access to this intrinsic love for our planet, whether we are in the city or in the wild, is essential to fuel the actions that we must take to heal the ailing earth and ensure a healthy planet for future generations.


Amanda Leigh Morrison, MA, MFT Intern sees clients in San Francisco at the Holos Institute.  Sheworks from the deep belief that each individual has the power to make significant changes within themselves and the world.  Drawing inspiration from the dynamic nature of the universe, she uses a multi-modal approach to encourage healing and empowerment.

Formerly a high-tech project manager, Amanda has experienced the challenge of waking up to the reality of our times and the joy of changing her focus in life from climbing the corporate ladder to living on purpose as an concerned but engaged citizen.  She is now a therapist, educator and writer who lives in San Francisco.


*University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (2009, February 19). Science Suggests Access To Nature Is Essential To Human Health. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 19, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2009/02/090217092758.htm

** Elizabeth R. Messer Diehl, “Gardens that Heal”, in Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind, ed Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist (San Francisco: Sierra Club Press), 169.

*** Craig Chalquist, “Ecotherapy Research and a Psychology of Homecoming in Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind, ed Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist (San Francisco: Sierra Club Press), 71.

**** E.O. Wilson, “Biophilia and the Conservation Ethic,” in The Biophilia Hypothesis, ed. Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson (Washington DC: Island Press, 1993), 31.