March 5th, 2019


General Manager, San Francisco Recreation and Parks

Co-Director, Citizen Science at the California Academy of Sciences

Pediatrician and Founder/Director of the Center for Nature and Health at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland


In an increasingly urbanized and digitized world, many people live separated from nature and may not deeply understand how climate impacts them around them.  

“I grew up in a great little suburban community where we had a lot of access to open space that I didn't really appreciate until I left the city,” says Rebecca Johnson, co-director of Citizen Science at the California Academy of Sciences. “There was always nature around us and my parents encouraged us [… ] to be outside, not sitting inside to pay attention and to be curious and ask questions.”

Johnson helps design programs that connect people to nature wherever they are, and does not completely shun technology in the process. In particular, she uses an online platform called iNaturalist that enlists citizen scientists to make biodiversity observations.

“Speaking as a scientist, those observations are really important for understanding and doing really good science and furthering conservation,” she explains, “but at the same time, this tool is a way to foster curiosity and… connect you to a community of people.”

iNaturalist is a useful tool for documenting and heightening awareness of climate change. And yet research has shown that all the benefits engaging more deeply with nature are enhanced when people leave their phones behind.

“If you take an urban person and you put them in the forest, within a few minutes you’ll see improvement in heart rate in blood pressure,” says Nooshin Razani, Director of the Center for Nature and Health at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. “Around 20 minutes you’ll see improvements in attention span, after an hour you’ll see more physical activity, and then 90 minutes they've shown that depression goes down.”

A pediatrician by practice, Razani prescribes time outdoors – without phones – to her patients and their families as preventive medicine. “The emotional attachment that happens between a parent and a child when a parent actually looks a child in the eye and mirrors their facial expression -- that whole interaction is key to the emotional development of the child,” she explains. “When both parties are fixated on the screen instead of each other there is a loss of what is not optional, what is actually essential to the development of a human being.”

As General Manager of San Francisco’s Parks Department, Phil Ginsburg has made it his mission to ensure that every child has a nature-based experience every day. “The generation of children that are growing up today is the most sedentary generation of kids in our history,” he laments. “The impact to mental health, the impact on creativity, relationship building – all these things happen easier in nature without a phone.”

Like Nooshin Razani, Ginsburg works with underserved communities to ensure that the city’s park system is more equitable and inviting to an increasingly urbanized population. “Nature is not about the once a year trip to Yosemite or to Glacier [National Park],” Ginsburg emphasizes, “nature is in your city, it’s in your backyard, it’s where we are.”

Related Links:

Citizen Science at the California Academy of Science
iNaturalist - A Community for Naturalists
Center for Nature and Health at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital
San Francisco Recreation and Parks

This is the qualifying event for the 2019 Climate One Arctic Adventure Scholarship. The $8,000 scholarship will support one local high school student on a New York Times Student Journey to Iceland.

Watch a video from last year's expedition