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Artsy app maps out Greater Boston green spaces

Paul Turano and a team created the Wander, Wonder, Wilderness app.

After learning about an app that maps all Greater Boston’s green spaces, artist Dana Clancy of Milton made a point of visiting a park every day. She used the Wander, Wonder, Wilderness app to discover new parks, take a picture, and post it to the companion website.

Rather than snapping shots aimlessly, she’d think about how she wanted to capture that day’s experience. One fall day, after the sun had broken through following a downpour, she walked to the Back Bay Fens, part of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, and caught an image of the ground covered with fallen acorns; she uploaded the shot to the Wander, Wonder, Wilderness website, where others clicking on that green spot on the map can see it.


“The oak trees just define the Emerald Necklace,” says Clancy, assistant professor of art at Boston University. “You’re sharing the fact that you saw nature and here’s how you saw it. But it isn’t about you because you don’t even know who posted the images.”

When Henry David Thoreau published “Walden” in 1854, he couldn’t have imagined the presence everywhere of people walking with their eyes glued to smartphones. Now filmmaker Paul Turano of Roslindale has created a way to turn a smartphone into a tool to find and enjoy city parks and into a medium for making art.

After years of living and working in Boston, Turano felt the effects of nature deprivation. Growing up in rural Connecticut, he loved exploring the woods. He knew that experiencing nature relaxes people and promotes appreciation for green spaces.

Turano, an assistant professor of media and visual arts at Emerson College, wanted to counteract this kind of nature deficit disorder and encourage urban dwellers to get out of their cars, offices, and classrooms and into one of dozens of parks in Greater Boston. He decided to make a documentary film called “Wander, Wonder, Wilderness.”


With a team, he created a free app of the same name that allows people to write an observation, shoot a photo, and record a sound. The companion website is intended to encourage Greater Boston residents to escape the concrete.

“Nature is inspiration for creative ideas,” says Turano. “I’m looking at this mobile app as a creative tool.”

The app and website show all the green spaces in Greater Boston, even little-known pocket parks.

Studies show that urban dwellers without access to nature have higher rates of psychological problems than those living near parks, and city dwellers who visit natural spaces have lower levels of stress hormones after exposure to nature.

“I think the interesting thing about this art form — it’s always going to be an experiment,” Turano says. “It’s like any kind of crowd-sourced activity; it moves with the activity of the crowd. Part of it is just a great group experiment.”

When users open the app, they choose between an icon of camera, tape recorder, and journal to select how they want to share their experience. The app provides an incentive to visit parks — a mostly bare tree that gains leaves with each post.

The National Park Service is in the midst of a campaign to attract more people to its parks, so Charles Tracy, its director of art and community landscapes, sees the app as a way to draw new audiences to discover and visit area parks.


The NPS has been partnering with artists to encourage people to express their experience visiting a national park through art, says Tracy, who sees Turano’s film as an artistic expression of the value of nature. “This is using art in a different way.”

While it’s counterintuitive to think an app would encourage people to spend more time in nature, the creators designed the app to help people find green spaces and then look at them differently once they arrive.

“The hope is that this can be a potential way to get young people to get to the green space, to be a bridge from the technology to the green space,” says Jeff Soyk of Somerville, a former student of Turano who helped design the app.

While he acknowledged the benefits of putting away the smartphone and immersing oneself in nature, Dan Scanlan of Jamaica Plain says the app has encouraged him to think more deliberately about sounds and experiences.

Once while walking his dog, he says, “I realized that the most significant aspect of that moment from a sensory standpoint was a riotous group of crows in the tree up above us. I decided to record about 17 seconds of the crows having this morning conversation.”

App users find that its anonymity removes the ego and keeps the focus on enjoying nature. “As a proud Bostonian,” says Scanlan, “it’s cool to be part of something that stretches back to Thoreau.”


Theresa Sullivan Barger can be reached at Theresa@TheresaSullivanBarger.com.