Lately, there has been much talk about the creative power of cities—the churning mix of people and energy, of face-to-face personal contact and interaction. New ideas, cutting-edge concepts and innovative technologies are likely to find their source in urban environments, and this is welcome news in an ever-urbanizing planet.

But nature is an equally potent source of creativity for solving complex social problems and for responding to the daunting challenges and shocks that cities will face in the future.  Creating urban conditions where residents have ready and near-constant ability to see and experience nature is an important antidote to the stresses of modern life.  It may also supply the essential background and building blocks for creativity, imagination, and artistic expression.

A recent visit to London offered me an important example of the overlap nature and creativity. Though I had visited London numerous times over the years, I had never managed to visit Hampstead Heath, a beloved green space and early park. A rather large park by most urban standards—now comprising around 800 acres–it is the setting for writing and work of one of my favorite poets, John Keats.

The importance of Hampstead Heath to Keats is a well-known demonstration of the role of parks in stimulating our senses and stoking our creative minds. Possibly Britain’s most famous poet, John Keats lived much of his short life in a house a few blocks from the park and was a frequent visitor.  His poetry often takes this nearby nature as its subject.

Nature’s ability to  inspire, to stir deep emotion, and to incite and invoke a depth of feeling and insight is evident in Keats’ work. Much of the subject matter of Keats is nature, experienced in walks and strolls in Hampstead Heath.

Keats’ beautiful poem “I stood tip-toe upon a little hill,” is believed to have been written about Hampstead Heath and is a deeply eloquent testament to power of such urban parks:

Caught from the early sobbing of the morn.
The clouds were pure and white as flocks new shorn,
And fresh from the clear brook; sweetly they slept
On the blue fields of heaven, and then there crept
A little noiseless noise among the leaves,
Born of the very sigh that silence heaves:
For not the faintest motion could be seen
Of all the shades that slanted o’er the green.

The qualities of Hampstead Heath that Keates evokes show the compelling power of a park to change human lives and shape the quality of life in urban neighborhoods. This park demonstrates the incredible value green space and nature can play close to where people live in cities. My visit took place on a chilly March Sunday: here families and large groups could be seen strolling, kids playing, climbing, and lone walkers exploring.  There was a grandparent playing a makeshift game of tennis with a grandchild, and there were kids balancing precariously on large logs and fallen trees. At least one entire family, it seems, could be seen perched in a large tree.

The views from Hampstead Heath are spectacular, with the London’s skyline not far away, though quite different than the one that Keats would have seen.

I gazed awhile, and felt as light, and free
As though the fanning wings of Mercury
Had played upon my heels: I was light-hearted,
And many pleasures to my vision started;
So I straightway began to pluck a posey
Of luxuries bright, milky, soft and rosy.

Hampstead Heath is a remarkably diverse and interesting park, with extensive woodlands, but also open fields, wetlands, and a series of ponds and dams, part of the latter open for swimming in the milder times of the year. There is much biodiversity found here, including some 180 bird species, 350 species of fungi, 23 species of butterflies, and much variety of plants and trees. It is also a great place to see and watch bats.

This is a wonderful park also for its informality. The spaces are not formally-designed, and no formal gardens at all. There are few paved paths or trails. There are many different paths to take.  Several have the feel of deer trails and may take you in a direction where you may not encounter others. This is a park of choices and exploration.

Open afresh your round of starry folds,
Ye ardent marigolds!
Dry up the moisture from your golden lids,
For great Apollo bids
That in these days your praises should be sung
On many harps, which he has lately strung;
And when again your dewiness he kisses,
Tell him, I have you in my world of blisses:
So haply when I rove in some far vale,
His mighty voice may come upon the gale.

                  ………………………………

Linger awhile upon some bending planks
That lean against a streamlet’s rushy banks,
And watch intently Nature’s gentle doings:
They will be found softer than ring-dove’s cooings.
How silent comes the water round that bend;
Not the minutest whisper does it send
To the o’erhanging sallows: blades of grass
Slowly across the chequer’d shadows pass.

Keats’s inspired work so beautifully demonstrates that nature can incite and provoke, can inspire and elicit emotions and creative resolve.  There are likely many sources creativity, of course, and nature is not the only muse or stimulant. But for Keats the nature of Hampstead Heath was a unique fount of literary inspiration, and one that every aspiring creative-city should take note of:

Thee must I praise above all other glories
That smile us on to tell delightful stories.
For what has made the sage or poet write
But the fair paradise of Nature’s light?
In the calm grandeur of a sober line,
We see the waving of the mountain pine;
And when a tale is beautifully staid,
We feel the safety of a hawthorn glade:
When it is moving on luxurious wings,
The soul is lost in pleasant smotherings…

[To read complete version of “I stood tip-toe” visit: http://www.john-keats.com/gedichte/i_stood_tip-toe.htm]

Post by Timothy Beatley

Timothy Beatley, PhD, is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities & Chair of the Department of Urban & Environmental Planning at the UVa School of Architecture.