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Sensory Nature Walk.

Published onJul 24, 2019
Sensory Nature Walk.

How do we learn to detect nuance in urban ecosystems?

“What counts here—first and last—is not so-called knowledge of so-called facts, but vision - seeing. Seeing here implies world view and is coupled with fantasy, with imagination.”

Josef Albers, Interaction of Color

In this Exploration, we will work to establish a keen eye - and nose, ear, and hand - when evaluating the qualities of our living world. We will use these observational skills moving forward in our continued exploration of the urban environment.

A leaking fountain provides water to spontaneous vegetation.

Setting Up.

Workshop Musings:

What is ecology? What is urban ecology? How do I learn to see or uncover interactions between living things and their habitats or ecosystems? What are things I’ve started to notice that I didn’t before? What can my senses tell me about the place I live? How can I share this information with others?

Materials + Preparation:

  • Field journal with zine holder (one per participant)

  • Viewfinder (one per participant)

  • Pens and pencils

  • Tape

  • Printed, cut, and folded zines (see below)

  • Printed images from first design journal (three images you took to capture nature in the city, or the city in nature, during facilitation preparation)

  • Printed and cut sensory nature prompts (optional: you can tape these into field books ahead of time, or have participants do this during the activity)

  • Two pre-selected field sites for the sensory nature walk (we suggest using the library grounds for one of these sites)

  • OPTIONAL: Nature Field Guides (the field guide on tree classification was popular with our group)

  • OPTIONAL: camera and mobile printer (we used the Polaroid Zip Instant Photoprinter)

Materials for this week (field book; viewfinder; pencils).

Introductory Zine:

The Sensing zine introduces a working definition of ecology, as well as a city scene in which to practice looking for interactions. Finally, it includes information about setting up and using the field journal. Download and print your copies here:

(Visit this website to learn how to cut and fold the zine after printing.)

Getting Started.

Defining Ecology.

This session focuses on heightening the senses to more easily notice interactions in the city or town.

To get started, participants should work together in small groups to review the Sensing zine, which presents working definitions of ecology and urban ecology, and also includes an example setting (a bustling city street!) in which to notice interactions between ecosystem components. After a few minutes, bring the group together for discussion:

  • what types of interactions did they notice in the illustration?

  • What are some other interactions they’ve observed in their community they might think capture or convey urban ecology?

Shift attention to the three images that you captured for your design journal (these should be printed and distributed amongst the participants along with the zines). Discuss:

  • Whats sorts of interactions can they notice in these photos?

  • How do nature and ‘the city’ come together in this instances?

  • In what ways do they work together, or against one another?

  • Do these images inspire any other thoughts or reflections? Have the participants observed similar interactions?

Setting up the Field Journal.

After the short discussion, distribute field journals: the urban explorer’s most important tool! Discuss what you might choose to include in the journal (this information is also presented in the zine)—drawings; words; observations and reflections; even samples or specimen. Give the participants some time to setup the first page of their journals with their names, dates, location, and the ‘zine holder.’ Introduce the idea of capturing information that comes from your senses. This process is what we’ll test in the field. Time to head outside!

Additional resources for keeping a field journal:

Field Exercise.

Your body is a sensor; a tool for gathering information, or data, about the world around you; an instrument to understand the environment. To become an expert urban ecologist, you must train your body—your sensor—to notice different phenomena, or unique aspects (maybe problems) of the landscape.

In the Sensory Nature Walk, we will tune our senses of sight, smell, touch, and hearing to gather information about the local environment and try to uncover some of its mysteries! The handout (below) provides a number of prompts that might be explored during the walk.

Sensory Nature Walk Guiding Prompts:

Print this document and cut it in half for putting into the field notebook. Note that these prompts are just guides for the nature walk—they are helpful tips if participants get stuck and are unsure of what to sense! All of these prompts can be used as discussion points. Note that since there are more prompts than likely is time to explore each, facilitators can also choose to edit a more consist list. The printout is also downloadable here as a word document in case you’d like to edit it down!

Sensory Nature Walk:

One of our nature walk locations - a public park

Head to your first field site. Before allowing groups or individuals (we suggest small groups of 2 - 3!) to explore on their own, come together first as a group outside. Sit in a circle, have everyone close their eyes and be silent for 30 seconds, and do an example reflection together:

  • What can be heard?

  • Are there any distinct scents?

  • What are ways that we can record our observations in the field book? Guide participants in recording this information. Experiment with both words and drawings. Following the group reflection, allow participants to explore the site further while recording on their own or in small groups.

Coming Together

Landscape Show & Tell:

Head to your second field-site for the Landscape Show & Tell. In this part of the activity, participants will group up, explore the site, and choose a space within it to focus on and ‘present' to the other patrons as part of a show and tell. Each group should describe the sorts of interactions they observe in that space, and perhaps how it relates to other parts of the field-site that other groups have selected. In total, this exercise should take around 30 minutes.

Wrapping Up:

On your walk back to the library, reflect with the group about phenomena you observe along sidewalks, around buildings, on fences, in the road, etc. Encourage the participants to lead the way, highlighting elements of urban ecology along the way, asking probing questions:

  • What do participants notice now that they didn’t before?

  • Can they discover any new interactions that they hand’t thought about or seen before?

  • Which senses do they use the most?

  • What are different scents telling them about the urban environment and the way people are living in/using it?

Facilitation Tips and Additional Resources.


  • We’ve found that participants love looking through regional guidebooks that describe local species and their behaviors—in particular, we used the guides by the National Audubon Society. If you have similar texts in your library, we recommend bring them to these workshops!

  • This activity will work best if participants can work individually or in small groups—avoid groups larger than 4 participants if possible.

  • There are more prompts than there is time to answer; if desired, pare down the questions ahead of time, perhaps as they are most relevant to your library grounds (or field-site)

  • Encourage different ways of completing the activity—remaining stationary and investigating all the senses; moving about and focusing on one sense; etc.

  • We suggest that that you finish all final reflections outdoors before concluding the session and heading indoors. In our playtest, we found that the change of scenery (wrapping up inside after the field visits) was challenging.

    Example Schedule:

    This is the example schedule from a playtest we ran with a local library:

    Time: 2 hours

    10 minutes: Getting started; participant and facilitator introductions (your name and something exciting you did outdoors lately!)

    20 minutes: Reading the zine; talking about definitions or ideas of ecology and urban ecology; discussing interactions observed in the zine; setting up field books with names, dates, and sensory nature prompts; brief discussion on how we can use the field book

    60 minutes: Sensory Nature walk between 3 locations - library courtyard, sidewalk, park (Show and Tell done at the park)

    30 minutes: Walk back to library; discuss some observations along the way; hand-washing and snack time!

Tune of the Week:

See Me, Feel Me / Listening To You

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