Using Your Phone to Connect with Urban Nature

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When we look at the physical makeup of urban areas, it’s obvious that we’ve transformed a natural wilderness into a modern forest of steel and concrete. The truth is we’re still surrounded by nature in the middle of the city, but our lives are simply too fast and our attention too fractured to notice it. A pair of professors at the University of Rochester aim to change our perception of urban nature and help us better understand the evolution of our cities with a new smart phone app called Indeterminate Hikes+ (IH+).

Assistant professor of art Cary Peppermint and Leila Nadir, a writer and lecturer on sustainability, are the co-founders of EcoArtTech, a collaboration that explores technology and environmentally focused work with other artists and organizations.The IH+ app is their latest project and utilizes Google Maps to create task-oriented paths designed to slow us down and simply make us more aware of our surroundings. As a news release explains: 

After downloading IH+, users “pioneer” a “hike” by entering a start and end location, similar to finding directions online. But instead of selecting a direct route, Google Maps generates a random path with prompts and activities that encourage users to look for wilderness in urban spaces. “The prompts increase awareness of the environment where you live and also cause social interactions–you’re using the technology to reconnect with space instead of people,” said Peppermint.

When following the route, users may be asked to take a photograph with their phones at selected points, write a “field note” on their phones, send a text message to someone, or perform a particular task–all in response to their surroundings. “Hikes” are intended to be performed in groups and with one phone, to make the experience socially interactive. “Wilderness is all around you and the app encourages users to give the same attention to inner city parks and rain gutters that we do to landscapes like canyons and gorges,” said Nadir.

Image by J. Adam Fenster / University of Rochester

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