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Want to Take a Nature Hike in Manhattan? This New App Shows You How

An app created out of the University of Rochester sends users on urban journeys, helping them see the ecological connections of city life, and demonstrating that technology doesn’t always have to mean efficiency.

Imagine walking down the street in Manhattan’s East Village and suddenly encountering 12 people sitting on the sidewalk. Just sitting there, like it’s no biggie. Like they’re not blocking harried pedestrians like yourself, who are late, late, late for something really important. Even worse, imagine if you encountered these sidewalk sitters, and one of them eyeballed you and said, "Excuse me, but have you seen a rabbit around here?"

Of course you haven’t seen a rabbit. You’re in the East Village. If you’ve chanced upon any wildlife, it has likely been a rat, or roach or pigeon. And that’s partly why you’re walking so fast; you’d rather not see whatever "nature" is lurking among the trash cans. But maybe, by ignoring the city, you’re missing out. Maybe you should join the sidewalk sitters on their Indeterminate Hike. IH is an app that is meant to help its users see—and appreciate—the natural world in the least natural of environments.

"In traditional environmental thought, the most privileged spaces are wild green areas, where there are no human beings," says Lelia Nadir, a professor at the University of Rochester and one of the app’s creators. "This is a problem. We also need to be aware of the places we actually live in."

Indeterminate Hikes prompts users to find beauty and inspiration, not in the gushing waterfall, but in the water dripping onto your head from that apartment radiator. It works like this: You plug in a starting point and an ending point. The app then uses Google Maps to create a route. No two routes are ever the same, and they are created without concern for efficiency, time, or distance. Along the way, the app will randomly present users with a "scenic vista," a prompt that asks you to stop and look at something in your immediate surroundings. You’ll also be prompted to do something—like sit down on the ground and ask passersby if they’ve seen any rabbits. Or take a photo and upload it to a common Indeterminate Hikes hub, or write a "field note" about what you’re seeing, smelling, and touching at that given moment.

These exercises aren’t just about locating new vistas of inspiration but about realizing that the water dripping from the radiator is as environmentally important as the waterfall in the woods. "There’s an ecological connection between them. It all ends up in your water supply," Nadir says.

Indeterminate Hikes is also an experiment in how we use mobile technology. "We use our phones to do everything as quickly as possible—to buy or travel or communicate," says Nadir. "We wanted to see if these technologies could slow us down." That’s the reasoning behind the "indeterminateness" of the whole project. It’s not about getting to the destination as quickly as possible but about experiencing the journey.

The app’s creators are also hoping that technology can encourage face-to-face interaction. Human beings are very much a part of the city ecosystem. The rabbit prompt, among others, is meant to help hikers engage with the people around them. And, in fact, on that day in the East Village, the 12 hikers picked up a couple of people along the way. People who couldn’t help but stop and chat, when asked if they’d seen any rabbits. "It broke down social barriers," says Cary Peppermint, the app’s co-creator.

Peppermint and Nadir understand that certain features of the app are absurd. But that’s just the point. "We want to break people out of the instrumentalist way that we lead our lives," Nadir explains. "We don’t talk to people unless we need them."

But stopping to sit on the sidewalk and converse with strangers about the absurdities of city life? "That makes everyone really, really happy," she says.

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