By: Emma King & Alexia Del Priore
With all this commotion, it can be hard for Ryerson community members to find a quiet, outdoor area to escape the stimulating surroundings. Looking down Gould St., the constant flow of bodies and conversation perfectly sums up a description found on Ryerson’s website: “Ryerson University is at the intersection of mind and action.”
Situated in downtown Toronto, Ryerson is a hub for innovation and constant activity. There’s no stop to the hustle and bustle with iconic landmarks such as the Eaton Centre and Toronto City Hall just minutes away from campus.
But where can staff and students find a peaceful outdoor area when they need a break from that action?
According to Diana Brecher, clinical psychologist at Ryerson University, being around nature can be highly beneficial to one’s well-being. For students, taking a break from studying to go somewhere nature-based can be a productive learning strategy.
“What nature does is it allows you to look up and engage more,” said Brecher. “When things are more visually pleasing, it can be quite restful.”
The Kerr Hall Quad, which until last fall was closed for renovations, is one of the only patches of outdoor green areas on campus. Ryerson’s location, although surrounded by a wealth of resources, does make it difficult to acquire or build more nature-based spaces.
“I love the Quad, but it’s sad that our campus is mostly brick buildings and construction sites,” said Taylor Timoney, a second-year social work student. “There’s not a lot of places for students to sit outside to take a breath of fresh air – that definitely takes its toll.”
Timoney said that it’s stressful for her to step onto campus and only see high-rise buildings and concrete.
Maura O’Keefe, clinical co-ordinator at Ryerson University, said that she feels a lot of people come to Ryerson’s campus knowing it’s a busy place with a lack of peaceful areas.
“It can just feel a bit overstimulating and I think all of those things can have an impact on mental health,” said O’Keefe.
According to O’Keefe, research shows that the environments people are surrounded by can have a significant impact on either worsening or bettering their overall mental health.
In 2016, the National College Health Assessment run by the American College Health Association surveyed 41 post-secondary institutions in Canada about the overall quality of their student population’s mental health.
Out of 691 Ryerson students surveyed, 67 per cent said that they felt overwhelming anxiety, while almost half felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.
“What contributes to one’s happiness or to one’s stress is probably a multitude of things,” O’Keefe said, regarding the statistics. “But we know generally that a determinant of health and wellness is having a physical environment that is healthy, calming, relaxing and connected to nature.”
Trent University, located in Peterborough, Ont., distributed the same survey to its students. Out of 1,156 respondents, 66 per cent said they felt happy every day or almost every day.
O’Keefe said a student’s level of stress and happiness is complex, but natural green space can help students feel a bit more calm and collected.
“If we’re paying attention to what makes an environment inviting and conducive to wellness, then paying attention to natural lighting, green space and the materials used are all part of what Ryerson should be doing,” said O’Keefe.
Zoia Kanovich, a first-year undeclared arts student from Cyprus, said that Ryerson’s campus makes her feel overwhelmed.
“I had a phase in my first semester where I was questioning if I could cope … not from a standpoint of attending university, but being here, being surrounded by buildings as opposed to the green environment,” said Kanovich. “I don’t think the Quad is big enough. I feel like there should be a few more natural places where people can go and do their own thing.”
When outdoor space isn’t available, O’Keefe said that having access to natural light can also support one’s mental well-being. The counselling centre, located in the basement of the Jorgenson Hall, doesn’t have any windows.
O’Keefe considers “having windows or having access to natural light as being something that’s really important when considering building plans.”
“I think that would be something to pay attention to whenever there’s new space available.”
Last year, Ryerson opened Ahnoowehpeekahmik, the staff and faculty well-being lounge. Named by Ryerson Elder Joanne Dallaire, the lounge is designed to enhance employee mental health and support well-being. It includes elements such as a cedar wood wall and a rest area with customizable lighting.
In an attempt to bring Ryerson community members to places with nature in the city, Deena Shaffer, co-ordinator of student transitions and retention, started ThriveRU’s Mood Routes. Alongside John Hannah, director of special projects and storytelling in student affairs, the pair have been running Mood Routes together for the past two years.
Courtesy of Mood Routes
Mood Routes is Ryerson’s weekly green space strolling and rolling program. Together, students are led on a one to one-and-a-half hour route to some of Toronto’s nature-based areas. There are currently 13 curated walks, two of which are designed for indoors on severe weather days, that take students to places such as Riverdale Farm or Sugar Beach. All routes are accessible and open to all Ryerson community members.
The idea came from Shaffer and Hannah attending the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Mood Walks summit. The two were touched by stories of how walking together as a community in nature helped attendees lower stress levels, elevate moods and form a connection. Shaffer said that she and Hannah instantly knew they wanted to bring something like this to Ryerson’s campus.
“It felt and still does feel, particularly poignant to run a program like Mood Routes here given our hyper-urban location,” said Shaffer.
Shaffer said the feedback they have received from Ryerson students who have taken part in the program has been humbling.
“They tell us that they no longer feel so alone or isolated, that they look forward to the warm greeting they receive when we meet,” said Shaffer. “They feel ‘really away’ from the minutiae of emails and to-dos when on a walk, are so happy to meet people from across the university, return to their school work with more energy and less tension and the list goes on.”
Because of the success of Mood Routes, Shaffer said that Ryerson is now helping 20 other Ontario post-secondary campuses figure out their own walking programs.
Mood Routes runs every Tuesday at noon, unless the university is closed or there’s inclement weather. The group meets on the steps of the SLC.
“I think that a student’s life can be filled with curiosity, wonder, and possibility, along with high stress and worry,” said Shaffer. “Time spent in nature, surrounded by community and moving our bodies can offer such relief, perspective and joy.”