INTERVIEW | Shelma Jun on Redefining Natural Spaces

Shelma Jun on Redefining Natural Spaces

Photo: Sasha Turrentine

Shelma Jun has accrued a staggering list of accolades. She was one of Conde Nast Traveler's “30 Most Powerful Women in Travel” in 2019 and one of Outside magazine's most impactful women in their piece: “The Future is Female and These 40 Women are Proof”. She founded Flash Foxy, a women's climbing group, and the Women's Climbing Festival. She also has a Master's in Urban Planning, so we wanted to talk to her about inclusion in natural spaces.

I wanted to talk to you about inclusion in the outdoors especially in the context of a point you’ve made about redefining natural spaces in a way that makes them more accessible, like being at a barbeque is an experience in the natural world.

A lot of my ideas around us expanding the definition of “outdoors” come from the work that I did in New York City. I worked for a community-based design non-profit called Hester Street Design Collaborative. We were artists, architects, and urban planners that tried to empower community members with the tools and the resources that they needed to help create the neighborhoods that they wanted to be in and to help create change in a way that made sense for them.

Historically, architects and urban planners come in and they decide, “This is what you need,” and everyone’s like, “We didn’t want that. No one even asked us what we wanted.” A perfect example of this was the plan to expand the East River and the Lower East Side with a pass to Pier 42. Pier 42 used to be a Dole warehouse pier, and it was closed in the ‘80s, abandoned, unused forever. Then there was the idea of turning it over to the economic redevelopment company. The community came out up-in-arms about it being redeveloped in that way. Then the project got moved to the Department of Parks to become a permanent park.

Some of the work that I did was around envisioning with people what they would want to see in a permanent park. Then this plan came out for this new park, and we were at the community board meeting and a bunch of local people from public housing in the Lower East Side came out, and they were like, “What’s up with the kayaks? Nobody said we wanted kayaks. We want barbeques. We want places to hang out with our families, for birthday parties, family dinners. That’s the outdoors that we want.”

I think it’s two-fold. I think to make the outdoors more accessible it’s [necessary] to recognize that people are already outdoors in their own way, and we need to make what we’ve traditionally called “the outdoors” feel like something that feels like them. I often talk about wearing my rock-climbing costume because it feels like a costume I have to put on. It doesn’t feel like my clothes. If an activity feels like you have to leave a huge part of yourself at home to do it, it doesn’t really feel like yours. So, creating those avenues for more traditional ideas of outdoors while also acknowledging that people are already outdoors in many different ways.

The first few years I lived in New York City, City Parks were my favorite places because of the dialogue between the grid and the intentionally inefficient paths through parks. I do think there’s something restorative about returning to that meandering space full of natural elements. Do you think City Parks provide something special in that way?

Not only is it at once a space to see all different types of people, but you also get to see that we all relax and restore ourselves in different ways, and I think that’s kind-of unique. You don’t get to see that that often in most places, right? So, I find that to be a really special part of being in the park because it creates a place where everybody is at rest. There isn’t really anywhere else in New York City except for maybe subway platforms where that happens. But I think with capitalism, we are moving, moving, moving, and at the park, we get to see people stop for a second, and I think that’s what’s really magical.

It does seem like city parks are places where you are there to be exactly present in a really wonderful way.

Meet people where they’re at and provide everyday opportunities to be outdoors and to engage with things while also creating avenues and pathways for people to experience the awe-inspiring aspects of nature.

Think about anthills and the ant cities that sit behind them. There are crazy passageways of complex systems of millions of ants all living together. We don’t think that the anthill isn’t part of nature, like “Here’s the anhill. There’s the rest of nature for the ants.” The anthill is just part of nature. And cities are part of nature. We have created a home for ourselves as an ant colony has. And in the same way, we live in these cities that are structured to house us and support our communities, and that doesn’t mean that we should just stay there. We should also just roam around, too. We’ve created this weird delineation between the urban concrete jungle and nature, but everything is part of nature. Lots of animals create homes for themselves, whether it’s a beaver dam or an anthill, and cities are manifestations of the human counterpart.

I totally agree. It’s strange to define human endeavors as not natural endeavors. That seems flawed inherently. What do you think it is about being in a place that is not–

-centered around humans?-

-Yeah, exactly. What do you think it is about being in a space that isn’t centered around humans that feels restorative?

It’s a reminder that this isn’t a human-centric world, that we are such a small part of a large world. That being said, we’ve created a horrifically large impact for being a tiny part of this world.

Being 1,000 feet up on a wall in the middle of Utah or in the middle of California somewhere and seeing nothing human-created around me, it reminds me that we are part of a much bigger world and a bigger dynamic. We often feel like there’s us and there’s the rest of nature: animals, insects, plants, rocks, mountains, oceans, whatever. And as being part of that, we need to feel a responsibility.

That becomes the most apparent when I’m out in the middle of nowhere, that I feel a part of the landscape. We’ve designed things to make people feel like they’re observers of the landscape. You get to a National Park in your car, you pay the fee, you drive in, and they’ve created this scenic loop through the park with perfect pullouts, where you can just pull out and look at the stuff and take a picture and maybe go on like a half mile hike to like a vista and come back. When you do that, you are looking at the landscape. You’re not a part of it.

I remember I was really high on the middle of a wall rock climbing, and that was the first time for me I felt like I was actively a part of what was happening, of the ecosystem, of everything that was happening here. That was a really powerful moment, and probably one of the main reasons that I’ve kept rock climbing is that connection. When I’m on a rock wall, I think, “This wall has been here for hundreds of thousands of years and has this huge terribly long story to tell, and now I am like one tiny tiny tiny tiny tiny note on the history of this rock wall, and if 10,000 years from now, you looked at the history of what happened here, I would be there for a moment,” and that’s kind-of cool.