Connecting with nature in urban settings

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 can overwhelm what green spaces do exist.

In 2016, world leaders adopted the United Nations’ New Urban Agenda which included in its goals the promotion of “safe, accessible and green public spaces.” However, this goal has been adopted to varying degrees of success, with the process of urbanization often skating past planned integration of natural experiences.

What is the impact of lack of nature in urban settings? Numerous studies document many negative impacts from lack of time spent in nature, including impacts on public health, personal development and the development of human-nature connection. 

In 1975, lepidopterist Robert Pyle introduced the term “extinction of experience” to describe the impact of dwindling natural diversity in cities and suburbia. He wrote:

“As cities and metastasizing suburbs forsake their natural diversity, and their citizens grow more removed from personal contact with nature, awareness and appreciation retreat. This breeds apathy toward environmental concerns and, inevitably, further degradation of the common habitat….So it goes, on and on, the extinction of experience sucking the life from the land, the intimacy from our connections… people who don’t know don’t care. What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?” (From The Thunder Tree, by Robert Pyle)

Ecopsychologist Peter Kahn took the concern a step further in his 2013 book The Rediscovery of the Wild. He speaks to our need, not only for domestic natural spaces (community gardens, parks, etc.) but also for wild spaces: “places that are large in scope, self-organizing, and unbounded, and autonomous and self-regulating systems, and of interactions that can be grand and awe inspiring and also frightening and difficult.” 

Part of the reason Kahn emphasizes the importance of interacting with truly wild spaces is because such interactions are a powerful antidote to our mistaken sense of dominion over nature. In domestic natural spaces, we can better preserve an illusion of control. Time spent in the rapidly diminishing wild quickly shows us just how faulty that illusion is. 

Nature in the city

But are urban spaces as lacking in opportunities to connect to nature – domesticated and wild – as we often assume them to be?

First, it’s important to acknowledge that not all urban spaces are created equal, an issue explored further in the next section of this post. Different cities boast varying degrees of natural spaces, be they parks, gardens, or reservoirs. And within individual cities, different neighborhoods afford different opportunities, with some hosting more diversity of species and others more barren and covered in concrete. 

However, taking up the challenge to foster a connection to nature in any urban setting is an opportunity to debunk the myth that urban places are ecologically barren.

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. 

Even Kahn himself emphasized 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, it is certainly true that some cities, and some parts of some cities, are more ecologically barren than others. And it is often in the poorest neighborhoods within cities 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. As we rise to the unique challenge of increasing human-nature connection in urban design, planning for resilience, sustainability and creating green cities, we miss an important aspect of the change that is needed if we do not commit to equal access for all residents of the city, greening and integrating nature into all neighborhoods regardless of the race or income of residents. 

This topic is tremendous and tremendously important. An incredible resource exists in The Just City Essays, compiled by The Nature of CIties. 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, and 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, let your child have time in those spaces to interact 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. 
  • 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.
  • 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 on just this topic, connecting people to nature. Many such organizations exist, each specific to the city of location. 

Categories: Children & Nature

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