Footprints of Delight

1,476 total words    

6 minutes of reading

In my position as an environmental psychologist and design professor, I frequently ended courses with a class on the psychology of happiness and “footprints of delight.” Whether it was a large undergraduate lecture class or a graduate seminar, students seemed equally alert. We had spent the semester studying environmental issues, their human dimensions, and design responses. Having heard more than once that environmental studies majors, overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems they learn about, are frequent visitors to university counseling centers, I am always measured in presenting the problem side of our relationship with the environment, even as I feel internally torn as to whether it is ethical to filter what I share rather than releasing the full weight of reports about our planet’s unraveling ecosystems. Students are young, on the edge of their adult lives and careers, and I want them to go forward with energy and hopefulness that they can make a positive difference in the world.

“Footprints of delight” is a term coined by the Canadian professor Catherine O’Brien after she studied how to encourage children’s active travel to school by walking and biking.[1] Adults, she found, focus on efficiency in getting from point A to point B, whereas children use their walks to school as opportunities to talk to a neighborhood dog, listen to birds singing, float sticks in a puddle, and race with a friend. Footprints of delight signify our attachment to places that connect us to ourselves, nature, and other people, as well as our ability to leave places better than we found them—richer fare for all senses, a brighter weave of community, creativity, and biodiversity. Many people are familiar with the concept of “ecological footprints” that measure the extent of the earth’s territory that we plunder as we consume its resources. It is an important concept, but it implies that our interface with the earth is fundamentally negative and the more we can narrow our impact, the better it is. Fortunately, I see alternatives because I am anchored in the field of design and urban planning, a field with a history of assaults against the earth but also, more and more, stories of regeneration and restoration even in cities with high human densities. As destinations where people come to see creatures who are losing their habitats to our species’ heedless overreach, zoos and aquariums offer design opportunities for making our positive potential visible too.

I begin these classes on footprints of delight by asking students to write down the four most important ingredients of their happiness. We post the responses for everyone to see; then I ask the students to sit back, review the array, and identify the responses that are incompatible with sustainability. There are typically a few, especially from undergraduates, such as “a hot babe in a fast car.” “Money” often surfaces, which opens a discussion: Is it or isn’t it incompatible? It depends. Overwhelmingly, students see that the elements of their happiness are constituents of a sustainable society. “Friends.” “Family.” “Nature.” “Music.” “Dancing.” “Hiking.” “Meaningful work.” “Health.” “Freedom.” They see that we can synchronize movement toward sustainability with movement toward happiness. I then share with them psychological research on life experiences associated with happiness, and they see that results overlap with the list they just generated: good family relationships, engaging work, enough money to securely meet basic needs, community and friends, health, freedom.[2]

We dwell a bit on that pesky item, “meeting basic needs,” as people’s definition of basic needs varies with their social reference group. At this point I share research demonstrating that people who run with a materialistic social reference group, who believe that basic needs include more and more flashy stuff, fail to find happiness by these means. People who value others and life experiences, such as gatherings with friends and outings in nature, rather than acquiring more and more material things, come out ahead on many measures of well-being.[3]

Then we move on to examples of people who are working to create footprints of delight. In Petaluma, California, artist and architect Patricia Johanson designed a wetlands that serves as the new water treatment plant, town park, and habitat for returning species, including an endangered rail and Salt Marsh harvest mouse. Protecting and planting green infrastructure like this is gaining recognition as the new best practice to purify soil and water and reduce storm water overflows while bringing nature into city dwellers’ lives. Another celebrated example is found at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, where the architect Jeanne Gang revived the zoo’s stagnant South Pond by deepening the water, removing its concrete rim, and planting its edges with diverse wetland habitats that people now enjoy from a boardwalk and pavilion.

The Zoo Pavilion, Chicago Il Children express delight through full-bodied movement as they engage with their environment in play. We know from many studies that free play and exploration in nature form a foundation for lifelong care for the natural world.[4] In response to this research, the design firm MIG renovated the Hamill Family Play Zoo at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago as a mosaic of zones for nature play: for digging, mixing mud, moving stones in a stream, building forts with branches, misting plants, and leaping like lemurs. Fifteen years later, the play zoo remains a major reason why families become zoo members and a model for similar initiatives in other zoos.

A message that Hamill Family Play Zoo staff, or “play partners,” seek to leave with parents is that they can continue to encourage their children’s nature play at home. The American Horticultural Society communicated this message through an exhibit that deserves to be replicated.[5] On the large grounds of its headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, the Society allocated plots to local landscape architects on the condition that each would create a children’s garden and space for nature play through a participatory design process involving children. Each plot was the size of a townhouse back yard. People came to admire the resulting variety and let their children test each plot’s opportunities. Zoos and aquariums can extend this idea for all ages, showing how people can turn their yards and gardens into habitats for nature play or quiet contemplation at the same time as they rebuild local landscapes for native biodiversity. As the entomologist Doug Tallamy and horticulturist Rick Darke have shown, urban and suburban yards are prime sites for restoring “living landscapes” while serving human needs.[6]

In talking with my students, I use the term “sustainability” because that is our common coin. But I agree with the journalist Richard Louv that sustainability alone is not sustainable.[7] The word suggests stasis, maintaining our stock of natural resources so that we can maintain our current way of life. But we have evidence from all sides that many aspects of our current physical, social, and economic systems are dysfunctional. We don’t need to sustain them. We need to move into a happier way of being and doing.

How will we get there? A clue given by the twentieth-century European philosopher Jean Gebser resonates with me. Gebser said that the key to transformation is to shift from our current paradigm’s preoccupation with quantification to attention to qualities of time.[8] Ecological footprints are about quantification. You can do with less. Yes, for myself writing this essay and probably for most of you reading it, we can. But does this spark brightness in our eyes and eager energy in the way that the concept of footprints of delight does for my students who linger at the end of class to discuss what we just shared?

Martin Luther King Jr., wisely said that no movement will succeed unless it paints a picture of a world where people will want to go. What will move us forward is the realization that we need to create harmonies between diverse human communities and their embracing ecosystems because our happiness depends on it. Let zoos and aquariums be centers that show how this can be done.

[1] O’Brien, C. (2006). A footprint of delight: Exploring sustainable happiness (Article 10-1-06). Retrieved from National Center for Bicycling and Walking Forum website:

[2] Layard, R. (2005). Happiness. London: Penguin Press.

[3] Kasser, T. (2016). Materialistic values and goals. Annual Review of Psychology, 67, 489-514.

[4] Chawla, L., & Derr, V. (2012). The development of conservation behaviors in childhood and youth. In S. Clayton (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology (pp. 527-555). Oxford University Press.

[5] Heffernan, M. (1994). The Children’s Garden Project at River Farm. Children’s Environments, 11(3), 221-231.

[6] Darke, R., & Tallamy, D. (2014). The Living Landscape. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

[7] Louv, R. (2011). The Nature Principle. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

[8] Gebser, J. (1985). The Ever-Present Origin (N. Barstad & A. Mickunas, Trans.). Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

Image Credit

“Zoo Pavilion” by John Zacherle. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • Louise Chawla

    Louise Chawla is an environmental psychologist whose work focuses on the benefits of access to nature for children, the development of active care for the natural world, and participatory methods for engaging children and youth in design and planning.

Scroll to Top