Clodagh Finn: Starting now, this is the year we need to embrace the great outdoors

It's nearly half-past January and the grand stretch is kicking in. So put on that hat, get to an outdoor café, wrap your hands around a hot coffee, and start becoming a true outsider
Clodagh Finn: Starting now, this is the year we need to embrace the great outdoors

Hats off to business owners who responded to the crisis by initiating outdoor hospitality — and hats on to their customers who support them even as the wintry chill sets in. Picture: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews

There is a certain relief in making it to the  second week of January. The battle cry to live your best life — that awful, goading phrase — has subsided and the grand auld stretch in the evenings is visible at last.

It’s not that new year’s resolutions aren’t  seductive. Who doesn’t want to shimmy out of last year’s skin and step into a new one?

The urge to work towards a personal ideal is always strong at this time of year. Add in a still-with-us pandemic and there’s a risk of reaching fever-pitch discontentment. 

That’s why it makes sense to keep it simple. My personal motto for 2022 is this: ‘More humans, less tech.’ There won’t be any living outside the box, either, just living outside.

It’s a fitting resolution at a time when the outside is ‘in’, if you will. We know that Covid-19 has less chance of doing its worst in the open air, and we have been asked to live accordingly. Restaurants, bars, and cafes responded with impressive speed. Witness the surge in outdoor dining over the last two exceptional years. Hats off to those business owners who showed such flexibility and inventiveness by reacting so quickly to a new reality.

Cork City Council CEO Ann Doherty visiting the new outdoor-focused streetscapes on Caroline St in Cork, following the initiative of local businesses and the installation of Fáilte Ireland-funded infrastructure to boost outdoor hospitality in the city. Picture: Darragh Kane
Cork City Council CEO Ann Doherty visiting the new outdoor-focused streetscapes on Caroline St in Cork, following the initiative of local businesses and the installation of Fáilte Ireland-funded infrastructure to boost outdoor hospitality in the city. Picture: Darragh Kane

A special nod to the customers who supported them, too. Who would have imagined that we’d embrace the outdoor terrace with the ease of a Parisian boulevardier, albeit one in a woolly hat?

There really is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing. It’s been an eye-opener to watch people cup their hands around a hot cappuccino and adapt with such flair.

It’s a big plus in my book, and I hope the outdoor terrace is here to stay.

For one thing, it provides a much-needed meeting point between the built and natural environment. Yes, terraces often look out on to busy, car-choked streets, but it has been really inspiring to see how businesses have carved out havens of natural calm amid the concrete.

We should take a leaf out of their book and do all we can to seek out the natural in the year ahead.

It has faded from memory a little now, but recall the early days of lockdown when we became aware, as if for the first time, of the natural world around us. It was as if the pandemic offered us a portal into what might be possible if we were more connected to nature.

An inspirational webinar

In a sense, all that ails us in the modern world can be explained by the breakdown in our relationship with the nature. I heard Martin Brown — the author of Future Restorative: Working Towards a New Sustainability — make that point starkly during a fascinating webinar on the benefits of connecting buildings, people, and nature.

By the time you're sitting at your local outdoor café or bar, you're only a few steps away from the true wilderness, whether you choose beach strolls, hill walks, or forest bathing. 
By the time you're sitting at your local outdoor café or bar, you're only a few steps away from the true wilderness, whether you choose beach strolls, hill walks, or forest bathing. 

Consider the climate emergency, the ecological crisis, and a global mental health epidemic: “Our relationship with nature unites all of them,” said Brown.

He is a sustainability provocateur — a job title for our times if ever there was one — who uses his background in construction to look at ways of improving modern buildings and workplaces.

If you haven’t heard the terms ‘biophilia’ — the innate human instinct to connect with nature — or ‘biophilic design’, let us hope that this is the year they enter the vernacular.

In essence, biophilic design aims to bring the outside in, by designing buildings that connect people with nature and, in the process, increases wellbeing and productivity.

We talk about smart cities and the internet of things, says Brown, yet we rarely talk about the internet of nature and how engaging with nature can improve the way we are doing things in buildings. Biophilia in the workplace is “a secret resource”.

Europeans and Americans spend a staggering 90% of their time indoors, according to studies, so it makes sense to think of ways to bring buildings and the people in them closer to nature, a proven source of wellbeing.

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks,” US naturalist John Muir wrote in 1887. Now we have scientific analysis to show the absolute truth of that.

Research consistently shows that time in nature is good for mind, body, and spirit. It improves wellbeing and boosts creativity yet, as Gráinne Bagnall — design thinker, forest-bather, and organiser of the aforementioned webinar — points out, nature is rarely considered in the design of most physical work spaces.

Gráinne Bagnall points out that nature is rarely considered in the design of most physical work spaces. Maybe now is the time to upend that? File picture: Michael O'Sullivan
Gráinne Bagnall points out that nature is rarely considered in the design of most physical work spaces. Maybe now is the time to upend that? File picture: Michael O'Sullivan

It’s time to start talking about changing that. And what better time to take stock than now, when the world of work has been overturned.

At the start of the pandemic, the numbers working from home were in single figures. Now, everyone, with few exceptions, has spent time in the boxroom staring into Zoom in the gloaming.

It is generally accepted that the future of work will be some sort of hybrid model, with people working from home for part of the week and in the office for the remainder.

The focus up to now has been on the benefits and drawbacks of both, but it’s time to widen that conversation to talk about the workplace itself.

Bringing the outdoors inside

Roisin Byrne, a nature-based landscape architect, has talked about the need to start a conversation advocating for change. Bringing nature into the workplace will uplift us and those around us, she says.

Our environment certainly shapes our thinking and our behaviour, but we can also shape our environment. The seismic shifts that have taken place over the last year prove that.

Maybe it’s time to take a step back and remember those early lockdown conversations about the joy of rediscovering birdsong, or
recall those turns around the local park during the 2km limit and the realisation that natural beauty was right on our doorstep.

Remember, too, how good it felt to experience the rush of fresh air in our lungs after hours of screen time.

If the kind of respect for the natural world that was rekindled during various lockdowns had always been to the fore in our built world, we might not be facing a climate crisis or other ecological disasters now.

If that is too much to contemplate in the early days of January, just edge towards change by bringing a little bit of the outside in, and turning the inside out, so to speak. Go on, poke your nose out into the fresh winter air.

See you there, on the terrace.

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