The Unsettling Outdoors: Environmental Estrangement in Everyday Life

By Russell Hitchings. RGS-IBG with Wiley, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-119-54915-4.

Sarah Royston reviews this book about the intersection between urban lives and green spaces.

From burgeoning research on nature-deficit disorder (Louv, 2005), to the cultural phenomenon of the Lost Words project (Macfarlane and Morris, 2017), awareness is growing of environmental estrangement in modern urban lives. Despite extensive evidence on the benefits of outdoor experiences for wellbeing, and for engagement with environmental issues, we seem to be spending less time in contact with the natural world. In his fascinating new book, Russell Hitchings argues that particular patterns of living are systematically reducing city-dwellers’ engagement with green spaces. Through four case studies, exploring how people work, exercise, garden and keep clean, he shows how daily routines increasingly alienate us from outdoor experiences.

A key contribution of the book is in forging links between geographies of nature and theories of social practice, so as to explore the kinds of (dis)connection with outdoor environments that arise through the performance of various everyday activities. Hitchings not only documents the “extinction of experience” (Pyle, 1993), but reveals the insidious and systematic ways in which specific patterns of work and leisure are effectively editing greenspace out of urban lives. The in-depth focus on mundane routines enables the analysis to go beyond generalised statements about estrangement from nature, to examine specific dynamics of forgetting, avoiding, succumbing and embracing that play out in particular contexts. However, the overall implication of the book seems to be that forgetting and avoiding are the most powerful of these, with an embracing of nature only observed as a temporary disruption to normality within the short timeframe of a music festival.

Reflecting on Hitchings’ four case studies, one can see recurring spirals of loss and degradation, not just in experience and interest, but in vocabularies, norms and skills. In a revealing example, when asked to describe their gardens, some participants lapsed into a bemused silence; the book highlights narrowing repertoires of speech, thought and action. One disturbing finding concerns a perception that engaging with nature is eccentric or weird, with an “outdoor alibi” (p63) (such as running an errand) needed in order to legitimise such peculiarity. Some office-workers were so imprisoned by the interlocking constraints of work cultures and temporalities that they reported only a vague awareness of the present season and weather. Meanwhile, there are associated losses in skills, such as know-how for adaptive comfort that responds to the vagaries of outdoor environments. The picture painted by this book - a collective sleepwalk into a lifeless concrete world - can certainly be described as unsettling. 

More widely, the book opens up exciting questions about how nature and outdoor experience can be understood within a practice-theoretical analysis. For example, Hitchings’ analysis focuses mainly on tensions between practices and the outdoors, rather than on ‘positive’ entanglements. The four dynamics that he identifies are compelling in their own right, but also serve as an invitation for further research: we might wonder what kinds of nature-engagement are demanded by other forms of practice, for other practitioners. In what ways do everyday routines facilitate, say, nurturing; stewarding; observing; or creatively engaging with green spaces? In what ways might such routines be fostered and supported?

The book is also remarkable in its methodological contribution, serving as a model for qualitative research that takes social practice seriously: reflexive, opportunistic, unapologetically fascinated by the mundane, and fundamentally respectful of participants’ expertise in their own lives. Hitchings tackles critiques of talk-based practice research head-on, offering a carefully-reasoned justification of interview methods: not claiming that they give an objective ‘window’ onto participants’ lives, but rather understanding talk itself as practice, and attending to real-life ways of speaking in specific moments, and what they can (and cannot) tell us about the speaker’s experience.

Drawing on several years of field research and over 180 interviews, Hitchings is unafraid to provide the kind of messy detail that journal papers often skim over. Through frank accounts of the methodologies used, he unsettles notions of what an interview is and should be. The data collection involved a mingling of observation and participation, along with interview-conversations that were often responsive, informal and mobile, including ‘running interviews’ with runners. The book offers particularly valuable advice for those researching ‘banal’ subjects, which can be challenging to study. It illustrates how researchers might use instances of disruption to illuminate the normal, how photo-taking can stimulate discussion of everyday environments, and how different question framings open up new ways of thinking. The analysis pays attention to what is unspoken, dodged or deflected, and the strategies deployed, with thoughtful reflection on details such as use of the passive voice and laughter. The result is not only a rich set of findings, but a hugely valuable resource for students and other researchers interested in applying creative qualitative approaches to everyday life.

The book raises significant challenges for professionals involved in urban policy, planning and design. Critically, it shows how promoting outdoor experience is much more than an issue of provision of urban green spaces. Nor is it simply a matter of raising individuals’ awareness of green-space opportunities or benefits. This analysis reveals the importance of considering outdoor experience in the context of the many intersecting routines that make up city-dwellers’ lives. Arguably, one implication of this is to massively broaden the scope of what we consider to be a green-space policy or intervention (as has been demonstrated in other fields, e.g. by Royston et al., 2018). Building on work linking active travel with green-space (e.g. Le et al., 2018) we might think of urban travel policies as green-space policies, and ask how they act to obstruct or facilitate outdoor experiences. Going further, how might green-space engagement be supported by interventions aimed at workplace cultures or timings of the working day?

Hitchings’ analysis challenges decision-makers and planners to think about designing for lives that include outdoor experience as a matter of routine. What might such ways of life look like: not just in terms of space and infrastructure (though these are important) but in time, in skills, in understandings of what is normal? For example, as well as considering the size of private gardens, we might ask whether people have opportunities to develop the practical skills and vocabulary to engage with the spaces they have. This might lead us to think about supporting community gardens where such skills can be shared.  If just ‘being in nature’ is seen as eccentric, we might think about fostering different ‘legitimate’ forms of outdoor practice. For example, could local authorities provide or support outdoor exercise classes (and suitable dog-free spaces for them)? Architects might take into account the need to create time-space for acceptable outdoor experience within work environments, for example, providing ‘outdoor meeting rooms’ or ‘outdoor desks’ using office roofs or courtyards.

For researchers, Hitchings highlights interesting topics for further study in the field of urban green-space, including the roles of weather and climate; technology and time; and dirt and disruption. He also draws attention to the influence of intermediaries such as garden-designers, highlighting an underexplored area within green-space research (which mostly focuses on residents). This insight also represents an invitation to these professionals themselves: to recognise that they have a key role to play as makers and shapers of outdoor practices. Ultimately (and as the COVID pandemic has powerfully shown) routines are never fixed, and can be disrupted in all sorts of ways.

With a down-to-earth style, Hitchings’ work embodies urban geography at its best – rooted in creativity, reflexivity, theoretical insight without dogma, and a deep attentiveness to the entanglements of human and beyond-human worlds. The book is not only a valuable resource for researchers and students in geography, planning and the built environment, but also a fascinating and engaging read.


Le, H.H.K, Buehler, R. and Hankey, S. (2018). Correlates of the built environment and active travel: evidence from 20 US metropolitan areas. Environmental Health Perspectives, 126:7.

Louv, R. (2005). Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. New York: Algonquin Books.

Macfarlane, R. and Morris, J. (2017). The Lost Words. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Pyle, R.M. (1993). The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Royston, S., Selby, J. and Shove, E. (2018). Invisible energy policies: A new agenda for energy demand reduction. Energy Policy, 123: 127-135.

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