How to Find Creative Inspiration in the Big City

When getting in touch with nature is not an option

Paul Ryburn, M.Sc.
Feb 23 · 5 min read
cityscape — tall buildings overshadowing narrow streets — “the concrete jungle”
Photo credit: Mike Moloney ISORepublic

“When you experience a creative block, get out into nature,” is a piece of advice commonly given to writers. “Feel the presence of the trees. Feel the wind against the back of your neck. Hear the sounds of the babbling brook. Feel the consciousness of the animals.”

That advice isn’t very helpful living in a large city, though. Go outside and all you see are slabs and more slabs of concrete everywhere. Street signs. Traffic lights. Cars. Neon signs in store windows. The only wildlife is squirrels and pigeons, and if you come out late enough, rats. Not terribly inspiring.

Below are 5 ways you can get similar benefits, creatively, of getting out into nature, without having to leave the city.

Add some altitude to creativity

In other words, get high. No, not like that.

To get the creative juices flowing and shake some ideas loose, you need a change of perspective. If you’re in a city that has built up more than it has built out, why not get as far up as possible, and get a wide view of the area you call home?

Find out if any of the tall buildings around you have rooftops or observation decks that are open to the general public. Where I live, the Peabody Hotel lets anyone — even non-guests of the hotel — visit its 13-story rooftop during the day. You can see the Mississippi River, all of the downtown area, and the home the world-famous Peabody ducks live in when they’re not swimming in the hotel lobby fountain.

Being high up puts you in an expansive frame of mind. It can get you thinking, “Somebody built all this… now, what am I going to create?”

Don’t forget to bring a notepad. A notes app on your phone will work too, but this is an environment where there is just something special about putting pen to paper.

Explore your city’s past in photos and maps

If you can’t go out into nature for inspiration, try traveling back in time for perspective.

I’m lucky in this sense — in the lobby of my building, there’s an 1870 map of Memphis. Many streets had different names. Areas that today are deep in the inner city were the suburbs back then. Mud Island did not exist back then. When I experience a drought of ideas, I will often take an elevator ride down to the first floor and spend some time staring at the map.

Many cities have websites or blogs, official or unofficial, dedicated to old maps so viewers can appreciate the changes over the years. Try getting on Google or Bing and searching for “(your city) historical maps” or “(your county) historical maps” and see what comes up. Your city or county’s library could be a valuable source as well.

Old photos of your city can also provide a time-shift perspective. I love looking at pre-World War I photos of my neighborhood, when automobiles were not the dominant means of getting from here to there. Really, though, photos from any period can provide inspiration. If your neighborhood is undergoing an urban renewal, searching for 1970s or 1980s photos might provide a creative spark.

Again, Google and Bing searches are good starting points, as are local libraries. My county’s archive has a Facebook page, and the people who maintain it post lots of relevant historic photos.

Take a walk in the rain

Tall buildings may block out the sunlight in the big city. Patches of grass may exist only in parks. Trees grow only where strategically placed to line city streets. However, one element of nature remains unaffected. John Fogerty asked in the classic Creedence Clearwater Revival song, “And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain?” The answer is, no one. Not even the landscape of the city.

Most city-dwellers run and hide from the rain. Do the opposite. Get out in it. Walk around in it. Savor it. It’s one of the few forces of nature you can experience without leaving the concrete jungle.

I’m sure you have taken walks around your city neighborhood when it’s sunny outside, but have you ever taken a walk in the rain? Not to get from point A to point B, but for the pure reason of enjoying your surroundings.

You may ask at this point, “Yeah, but if walking in the rain jars some great ideas loose, how am I supposed to jot them down? A waterproof notepad?” Yup, that exists!

See a different side of your city through volunteering

If you can’t change your surroundings, you can still change your perspective. Us city-dwelling creatives tend to run out of ideas because we see the same buildings every day, interact with the same people every day. Volunteering is a way to change that scenery without traveling far.

There are plenty of organizations that could benefit from the help of creative people, of idea people, and if you find a volunteer gig along those lines that seems ideal for you, go for it! However, since your goal is to get a new perspective, I suggest looking for an opportunity that is completely different than your daily routine.

If you’re physically up for it, manual labor can be an excellent way to free up ideas. Most writers sit at desks the majority of the day, so moving boxes around a food bank warehouse might be the perfect way to jar you out of your creative rut.

If physical labor isn’t possible or desirable, try something far out of your routine:

  • If you hang around a younger crowd mostly, look for a volunteer opportunity to work with seniors
  • If you don’t have kids, look for a volunteer opportunity to work with kids
  • If you don’t have pets, look for a volunteer opportunity to work with animals
  • If you spend almost all of your time indoors, look for a chance to volunteer outdoors

Connect with nature virtually

If you aren’t able to get out of the city and into nature, use the power of the Internet to bring nature to you.

Google Earth has a guided tour of 31 United States national parks. Whether you’re into the ocean, deserts, caves, or forests, there’s a tour for you with 360-degree views.

One of my longtime favorite sites is Africam. There you can view the majestic animals of the African continent in their native habitat, day and night. You can see elephants, hyenas, lions, giraffes, leopards, monkeys, and more.

YouTube and Explore.org have a channel of live nature cams. The tropical reef cam is my favorite to display fullscreen.

Takeaway

Even if you can’t leave the city to let nature refresh your creativity, you can still turn your mind to new horizons. Some of the ways you can do that are

  • Viewing the city from up high
  • Taking a trip back in time
  • Going for a walk in the rain
  • Volunteering to see a new side of your city
  • Getting in touch with nature via Google Earth or live nature cams

City slickers, how do you jostle ideas loose? Let me know in the comments.

Let’s keep in touch! Feel free to sign up for my newsletter. Here’s another article of mine on creativity:

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Paul Ryburn, M.Sc.

Written by

I write about writing, ideas, creativity, intuition, spirituality, life lessons. Ex-college teacher https://www.buymeacoffee.com/paulryburn Twitter: @paulryburn

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Paul Ryburn, M.Sc.

Written by

I write about writing, ideas, creativity, intuition, spirituality, life lessons. Ex-college teacher https://www.buymeacoffee.com/paulryburn Twitter: @paulryburn

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Blank Page is home to stories that help creatives get smarter at writing.

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