In 2018, the United Nations reported that 55% of the world’s population lives in cities, with that number set to rise to 68% by 2050. Cities present a challenge when it comes to a particularly important aspect of addressing climate change: our reconnection with the rest of the natural world. It can be easy, in a city, to forget the broader web of life of which we are a part and on which we are entirely dependent. Technology, man-made infrastructure and the pace of life easily overwhelm what green spaces do exist.
Numerous studies document many negative impacts of this lack of nature in urban settings, including impacts on public health, personal development and the development of human-nature connection. Furthermore, it is easy, within the confines of a city, to develop a false sense of human control over the wild, natural world.
Nature in the city
But are urban spaces as lacking in opportunities to connect to nature as we often assume them to be?
A city is an ecological system – animals other than humans live in every city. Plants spring up in urban gardens, deserted lots and the cracks in pavement. Bugs zoom around. The sun rises and sets, the weather changes. Food and water (elements of nature – for the most part) are consumed by the city’s inhabitants. And the city connects to the environment around it, the suburbs, the sprawl and, eventually, wide, open spaces.
It is easier, in the city, to forget this network of connection and interbeing. It takes a little more work to remind ourselves that our lives weave with others, that we depend on many other lives to sustain our own and that our actions also impact many other living beings. However, it is not impossible. Within the beat of the life of the city is also the beat of the natural world, if we know how to look for it.
Ecopsychologist Peter Kahn emphasizes that while it is more challenging to find wild spaces in urban settings, if we make an effort, the opportunities still exist to connect to a bit of wildness.
“For example, go for a walk in a rainstorm and you encounter a nature that is big, untamed, unmanaged, not encompassed and self-organizing. That’s wildness. But also recognize that wildness exists along a continuum. Walking outside is more wild than walking on a treadmill. Sitting on the ground under a tree is more wild than sitting on a bench. Anywhere you are in the city, you can connect with nature a little wilder, a little more deeply.” (UW News, 2016)
Access and justice
However, not all cities and not all neighborhoods are created equal. It is often in the poorest neighborhoods that nature is the least evident.
Consequently, access to nature in urban spaces becomes an issue of justice. Urban design aimed at creating spaces that are both good for humans and good for the rest of nature must also be aimed at equal access – working for sustainability, resilience and livability for all.
The Just City Essays, compiled by The Nature of CIties, is an incredible resource on this topic. The essays were collected from 26 authors living in 22 cities across five continents. Contributors include architects, mayors, artists, doctors, designers, scholars, philanthropists, ecologists, urban planners, and community activists. All were asked the following two questions: What would a just city look like? What strategies could get us there? The resulting compilation forms a powerful call to action.
Practices to help foster a connection in urban spaces
Cultivating a connection to nature in urban spaces requires more creativity, but is by no means impossible. When teaching preschool in San Francisco, I was consistently moved by the way in which children are drawn to the natural world, including in the city.
Here are some ideas, activities and steps for bonding with nature in an urban environment:
- Slow down and recognize the presence of nature in your surroundings. Track the flight of a bird, the progress of a bug, the movement of clouds and the way in which plants push up between pieces of pavement. Even in the most urban of environments, nature’s presence can be felt – it just takes more awareness to make the connection.
- Find green spaces and bring your child to them. Parks, community gardens, sidewalk gardens…and whenever possible, support your child in interacting with as many of their senses as possible. If allowed and safe, get their shoes off and bare feet in the ground. Let them touch, smell, observe and wonder.
- If possible,bring plants into and around your home. Fill your space with indoor and outdoor plants and involve your child in their care. You can even grow edible plants like basil, rosemary and oregano without much effort or expense.
- Volunteer with local conservation efforts and see how your child can also get involved with such organizations.
- Keep a nature journal.
- Create a nature-based scavenger hunt in the city.
- Look for a community garden opportunity.
- Exercise outside.
And look for organizations in your location working to provide a connection with nature. Many such organizations exist, each specific to the city of location.