Thoreau-ly inspired professor creates app to celebrate green spaces

by Sarah Hope / Beacon Correspondent • October 14, 2015

paul turano pic
Courtesy of Paul Turano
paul turano pic
Courtesy of Paul Turano

Paul Turano is aiming to enhance the Boston park experience with his new app, “Wander Wonder Wilderness.”

An eight-year visual and media arts professor at Emerson, Turano invented a multimedia platform that incorporates his multiple passions. Wander Wonder Wilderness is an app that allows users to document experiences they have at any green space or park in the greater Boston area. Users are called Wanderers, and can upload pictures, audio files, or journal entries for other people to see.

“It’s part of a bigger project, and so we use the term ‘multi-platform,’” Turano said. “It’s an interactive documentary that uses different platforms to deliver the content of the film.”

After visiting Walden Pond, the same place Henry David Thoreau lived for years in seclusion, Turano said the idea came to him to become more in touch with nature. At the pond there was a pile of smooth rocks, according to Turano, that reminded him of Thoreau.

“When I saw that rock pile, I thought of it as like a participatory art sculpture,” Turano said. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to try to create an opportunity for people to make media in green spaces, where they can document the experience they had, just like in Thoreau’s site?’”

This inspiration lead Turano to create a similar experience for Wanderers. Like Thoreau, Turano said he believes that spending time outdoors, and in nature, is beneficial to us.

“One of the things we lose sight of is that it’s sort of in our biology, I think,” Turano said. “We need a certain amount of light, we need to be connected to living organisms, and living organic things.”

The app is also meant to improve the amount of traffic to various outdoor outlets in Boston, said Turano. 

“If people start increasing their frequency of visits to green space, and they start really feeling a change in their attitude or mental well-being or their physical well-being, it’s a door opening to what it means on a bigger level,” Turano said.

When first opening the app, a daily objective pops up to motivate users to explore at least once a day. In Boston, a major city housing about 250,000 college students, people need their “nature fix,” as Turano described it. 

“Because we live in such a chaotic environment as urban dwellers, there’s so much stimuli going on; there’s so much stress, there’s so many things that we get preoccupied with and distracted by, that [nature is] almost like an antidote to urban living,” Turano said.

Steven Kane, a junior visual and media arts major, is a student of Turano’s. Kane said he is currently directing a feature film that takes place in nature, and is using the app to locate and explore the urban green areas throughout Boston.

“If people use it to what it's capable of, you'll have just a gallery full of nature's outdoor spaces,” said Kane. “I’m excited to see how it goes.”

Along with aiming to encourage green space exploration, Turano said he is interested in raising awareness about climate change, which he feels is a significant issue humans contribute to immensely.

“If you can get people to commune with nature on a very basic level and get a sense of what an amazing resource it is, it may inspire them to think about what do they need to do to sustain it,” he said.

By using his app in various after-school programs, Turano said he hopes to influence kids to advocate for Mother Nature. Part of the project is an educational initiative that partners the app with certain extracurriculars in the Boston Public School System, like Sociedad Latina and Music and Youth. During the program, a group will visit a greenway, receive some background information on it, explore, post to the app, gather to talk about it, and take a survey.

During the 1970s energy crisis, Turano said he learned values like turning off the light every time you exit a room, which he said he still maintains today. The educational initiative is trying to instill similar values and respect for nature into adolescents. According to Turano, a social media app will attract younger, technologically advanced kids who would not necessarily use their smartphones for such things. He said he thinks this would lead to them developing a deeper appreciation for nature.

One of the theories behind the app is that it gives the viewer just enough to have a unique viewing experience, but leaves enough out for anyone to want to go out and make their own memories, he said.

“If you provide really simple tools of creative expression,” Turano said, “people find that they have something to say.”