Stargazing Activities Should be Made Accessible to Urban Communities to Increase Well-being

There is a basic human need to feel connected to nature, yet the concrete jungle, where the majority of the global population lives, is not an environment that meets that need. The global migration to urban areas show no signs of slowing and the population density of these areas continues to increase. The known negative impacts of this unnatural landscape must be addressed before new problems arise from the burden of the growing urban population. Oops, too late: social mandates from COVID-19 have exacerbated unaddressed problems already present in urban environments and added new obstacles to overcome them. These environments have become further disconnected from nature and cause social and mental health problems as a result. Fostering a connection to nature has been proven to increase the well-being of urban populations. Local green spaces help, but have never been enough. Effective alternatives to green spaces will need to be developed and implemented in urban communities to maintain healthy levels of nature connectedness. Sadly, the most accessible natural experience is almost never taken advantage of, even though it is always available, right above our heads. The night sky–often obscured by noxious urban light pollution–is virtually invisible and oft forgotten by the average city-dweller. However, establishing a connection to the cosmos can fulfill the need to connect to nature, just in a more abstract way. So, bringing communities together for stargazing nights with telescopes could be one of the alternatives we were looking for.  Stargazing parties should be offered as community services, because they increase nature connectedness and awe, and are effective in improving well-being, mental health, and social cohesion within communities in post-COVID urban environments.

The need for nature connectedness is one of the basic needs that contributes to our overall well-being. While the word “nature” is most commonly used today to refer to geology and wildlife, the natural realm that encompasses this psychological need extends from the stars above to the Earth below; it is the universe as a whole (Baxter, 2019). This broad definition increases our options for community events that do not rely on local green spaces that could still make a large positive impact on meeting our need for nature connectedness. However, one of the main contributors toward meeting this need is the amount of green space in the area in which one lives. Therefore, the lack of green spaces in dense urban environments compared to rural ones will lead to the need not being met, which takes a toll on the urban population. “People in heavily built up neighborhoods with low [green space] tend to have worse mental health and lower perceptions of social cohesion (Cox 2018).” The study also found that the members of the population who spend the least amount of time outdoors have the lowest perception of cohesion. As population density continues to rise, increasing green spaces to meet growing urban needs is not possible. Alternative methods of boosting nature connectedness that don’t rely on green spaces must be implemented to meet this need. 

Compounding these issues are the effects of the “social distancing” and “stay at home” mandates on urban populations. Together they formed a “new normal” mindset that generated fear of close interactions with strangers and led to avoidance of public spaces, including green spaces, and more time spent at home. Prolonged periods of time away from nature decreases cognitive capacity and emotional regulation (Baxter 2019). Studies of the effects of the “new normal” indeed show a correlation between the decrease in time spent in nature and poorer mental health, namely increased symptoms of depression and anxiety (Young 2022), and decreased life satisfaction (Wanberg 2020). Another study found that during lockdown, people with the lowest perception of social cohesion experienced the largest increase in depressive symptoms and loneliness. The study found a large correlation between social cohesion and depressive symptoms, suggesting social cohesion “may be an important source of social support in response to future mandates (O’Donnell 2022).” Urban areas with already low social cohesion saw a decrease during covid, and suffered worse mental health consequences than communities with greater cohesion. 

Urban life can be drastically improved by focusing efforts on increasing nature connectedness. This will address both the decreased well-being and social cohesion of urban environments, and the exacerbation of these issues by the pandemic, at the same time! The people who need the most help are the ones who experienced the most fear and are disconnected most from nature (Lee 2021). These people’s unique needs must be kept in mind when community-wide solutions are being designed.

There are many benefits to restoring nature connectedness. Simple exposure to nature has the capacity to “mediate the negative effects of stress, reduce the negative mood state, and enhance positive emotions” in a strong and consistent way (Berto 2014)(Mayer 2009). Additionally, greater nature connectedness “has been associated with improved “well-being in the form of overall life satisfaction, positive and negative affect, happiness, and meaningfulness (Wyles 2019).” In a recent study, 84% of respondents found experiences in nature helped them cope with the pandemic (Robinson 2021). An experience that is designed to meet the needs for nature connectedness and other needs at the same time is a very effective experience that can have a very large effect on “well-being including flourishing, affect, life satisfaction, and [purposeful] well-being (Lee 2021).” An experience of awe can add on to the total well-being generated from increasing nature connectedness (Piff, 2015). “Awe can cause people to feel they have more available time, which can enhance their well-being (Rudd 2012).These wonderful effects on mood will help with all the depressive symptoms people have experienced, and the effects on well-being will hopefully reverse the decline experienced.

With all the problems and potential benefits laid out, we can design the shape of the solution that lies between them. The solution must increase well-being by addressing the need of nature connectedness and other needs, if possible. It must also increase perception of social cohesion by involving the community in a safe, positive way for people still effected by the “new normal” mindset. Most members of a community are not living in the “new normal” anymore. However, for those who are, they are the most fearful, most disconnected, and most in need of community. We are also seeking a modern solution that does not rely on a green space, but is still just as accessible. A case study I will propose now is for stargazing community events, commonly referred to as “star parties.”

Star parties are events were community members gather outside, at night to look through at least one telescope, and with at least one amateur astronomer knowledgeable enough to operate the telescope and to answer any questions who is leading the event. When a person leans in to look through the telescope, everything goes black before they finally get lined up to see the object through the lens. Usually the event leader will stand near the telescope and the viewer to tailor each experience to each viewer. Throughout the event, they will talk about the object on view and try to give some awe-inspiring facts about it, something memorable, definitely not boring facts only other hobbyists would appreciate. We try to put the image in perspective so the person has a chance to believe the image is real, and we try to give people verbal rewards for coming. 

Let’s see how star parties stack up against my criteria. First, they need to address nature connectedness. Even in light polluted ultra-urban skies, the Moon will always look good and so will the planets, if they’re up. Looking at the Moon or a planet is similar to looking out over a scenic vista, it takes some time to take it all in. This activity is definitely visually immersive as a natural scene, even if it isn’t a traditional green space, and contributes to nature connectedness. The add-on feeling is the experience of awe. Usually, with properly selected introductory information and the right feel in the group, everyone gets their “wow” moment. Having better equipment makes getting to that moment a little easier, but a small telescope will still have its wow moments, too. Because the event happens outside, in the dark, near sensitive, expensive equipment, the groups of participants are usually spread out and mindful not to get too close to anything or anyone anyway. People who still have fears being in communal spaces with strangers might consider this event controlled enough and come try it out. For everyone, but for antisocial people especially, participating in a group activity where you all willingly come together for the same purpose and accept each other once you’re there is really positively impactful on their perception of social cohesion within the community. Bonus criteria is that this event is at night. Usually, nature-related events happen during the day. A nighttime nature connection offering is great for night owls who generally prefer nighttime activities, people looking for after-work activities, people who are only available at night, and people seeking more diverse connections to nature. This makes nature connectedness even more accessible to members of the community.

There are a few ways to get these Star Parties organized and started in communities. Usually local astronomy clubs will have a few members who would volunteer to host a star party, if they don’t already have monthly star parties on their schedule already. Starting a star party club has relatively low start-up costs since a low-cost telescope can still give great views of the moon and planets. Most cities also give grants to help programs like this get started. On a larger scale, organizations already exist and advocate for more amateur astronomy and star parties all over the world. There is an extremely successful grant program based in South Africa and run by the International Astronomical Union and the South African National Research Foundation. “The project ‘Astronomy for Mental Health’ aims to explore how various modes of astronomy, including stargazing and education, can be a viable tool for improving mental well-being (IAU-OAD, 2022).”

To cope with consequences in post-covid urban environments, we need to come up with inspiring ways to rekindle nature connectedness. From first-hand experience, I have seen these ideas in action and they do work. Social distancing is simple when you’re out on an empty road or sidewalk, “wow”s are always easy to get from every demographic, and there is never a lull in the line. These events are so fun for everyone as awe and curiosity are sparked, and people seems to make amazing memories with their friends and strangers alike. Although it is going to take a lot of creativity to solve all the problems we have ahead of us, I do have hope for the future populations of our cities.


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