It was one of those mornings. My 8-year-old daughter was angry. She was angry that her pants did not fit.
She was angry that her shoes were too tight. That her backpack was too heavy. Everything was wrong. She complained, cried and protested. We finally managed to get out the door but her anger continued into the street. Living in a suburb of Stockholm, we have the advantage of being able to walk or bike to school. On this morning, the temperature was around freezing and it looked a bit slippery, so we decided to walk.
When we walk to school, we often take a shortcut through a very small forest which is essentially a green wedge between two residential areas with a winding steep path. As we reached the forest, my daughter, who was just seconds away from tears, grew silent. Completely silent. The forest, it seemed, had finally quieted her.
There were a few birds in the forest, and with the new quiet, we could hear them clearly. By the time we passed through the forest, which only takes a few minutes, my daughter’s anger was gone. And the rest of the walk to school was pleasant.
When we go into a forest, listening, smelling, feeling, and for a while, just being, we can gain new strength. Being in nature can help drain away stress, anxiety and anger (even for eight-year-olds).
The effect can be even more positive if the forest, meadow, beach or mountain provides a measure of silence so that we can hear nature’s smallest sounds. My own interest in silence awakened in the 90s when I worked with leadership groups in the Swedish mountains. One of the exercises that always had strong effects was a group walk in complete silence.
Later, my fascination with nature’s ability to foster silence grew into a project called the Guide to Silence project and a book by the same name. The purpose of the book was to enable people to find and experience the quiet wilderness of the Swedish mountains and, simultaneously, lower their stress levels and find inner stillness.
Going to, and experiencing, wild places a few times a week, monthly or perhaps only once a year, can have great benefit for us. But the nature we have nearby and can visit every day is, in many ways, even more valuable. In 2013, we moved the Guide to Silence project to an urban setting with the question: How much silence can we find in natural places in a city?
Noise and noise pollution are problems of most of the world’s major cities. Traffic noise can be measured and analyzed. Limits can be imposed on the level of noise affecting homes, offices, schools and playgrounds. But, in Stockholm and many world cities, there are no noise restrictions inside parks, green areas or nature reserves. The city of Stockholm has, however, been working to analyze how noise affects recreation areas. At the Guide to Silence initiative, we have gone one step further by searching for the quietest, most peaceful places we can find in the city’s diverse natural areas. We have two main purposes for identifying silent sites: first to enable residents and visitors in Stockholm to find these peaceful places; and secondly, to help politicians, urban planners and other decision makers understand the importance of preserving the quiet places we can find in, and close to, the big city.
As city residents in this age, perhaps our greatest needs are a dose of nature, a break from thinking, moments of just being, and silence.
The city of Stockholm has some advantages in terms of nature and silence. The city is built on hilly islands, between Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea. We also have a number of, more or less, unbroken green wedges that extend from the central parts of the city and outward. In addition, we have the Royal National City Park right at the center of the city and a number of smaller nature reserves. But the city is growing fast, and some of these green areas are increasingly targeted for new developments.
There is hope too. If you visit Stockholm’s green areas during weekdays, as I did, to find quiet spots, there are primarily four groups you will meet: the elderly; parents with young children; dog owners; and groups of pre-school or school children on excursions. The fact that children from pre-schools and schools are among the most frequent visitors to our woods shows that outdoor education has a strong foothold in Sweden.
Like many other large cities, Stockholm has large suburbs packed with high-rise apartment buildings and lots of concrete and more affluent neighborhoods with plentiful green areas. Fortunately, almost all residential areas have direct proximity to nature. And, in many cases, large nature reserves are directly linked to the “concrete suburbs.” The city of Stockholm has acknowledged the importance of including each of the city’s communities (with diverse incomes and backgrounds), in the effort to attract and inspire visits to the peaceful nature next door.
What if all major cities in the world identified quiet serene places in wild nature or small parks and enabled and inspired people to find these places? What if every neighborhood had its own designated peaceful places where children and adults could find peace, new strength and balance? What if safeguarding, developing and caring for peaceful, quiet beautiful places could become a natural part of all city planning?
This April, the City of Stockholm will launch 11 Guides to Silence which will include 22 walks and 65 identified peaceful places around the city. More than one million inhabitants in Stockholm can easily reach these sites by foot, bike or public transportation directly from their home or workplace. Already in 2015, the city of Sundbyberg, a neighboring community of Stockholm, launched their Guide to Silence that covers six sites in parks, small green areas and a nature reserve.
Our ambition now is to try to spread the Guide to Silence around the world. We invite organizations, communities and partners to join us.
Please find out more at www.guidetosilence.org.
More C&NN Reading and Resources
In the News
Photo Credits: Ulf Bohman
Commentaries here and elsewhere on the C&NN website are offered
to inform readers and to stimulate new thinking and debate. C&NN does not officially
endorse every statement, report or product mentioned in every commentary.