July 9th, 2013

me meh

Towards a Nature-Rich Urban Experience

That’s the title of a recent post by Richard Louv at Children & Nature Network. Since the subtitle includes “insert your city here” I thought I’d answer the five suggestions he proposes with what I know is happening around Seattle. I haven’t researched these, so this is just top-of-my-head thinking. I welcome any other recommendations. (The numbered list items below are direct quotes from the original blog post; the responses are my own.)

1. Incubate future entrepreneurs through the nurture of nature.

This suggestion is for improving nature programs in school. He particularly suggests “independent play,” which I agree with. Losing the ability to have free roaming time, or unscheduled, independent play, I think decreases the ability of children to think for themselves.

One important aspect of nature education (and independent play) is that it helps establish a home base for the child, from which they can then extend to see how their actions have remote effects. I think an effective nature education program would combine elements of independent play (perhaps an unescorted scavenger hunt for leaf-types through a park) and would use that immediate experience to connect children to the larger world.

2. Lead a campaign to reverse the pandemic of inactivity.

Well, I’ve spent all day at the computer, mostly on Facebook. Before the internet, it was books and magazines.

I think the “pandemic of inactivity” goes a little deeper than personal choice or laziness. Most of the infrastructure in our cities is designed around the car. Little or nothing is within walking distance, and even if it were, the roaming ranges of children has shrunk considerably in these more paranoid times. We can try campaigns like “sitting is the new smoking,” but until our cities are organized around bicycles, walking, and other forms of transportation than the car, we’ll be less active.

3. Become the first city to declare itself an engine of biodiversity.

This is the one that resonates with me, particularly the last sentence, used as a pull-quote in the original post:

In the future, our sense of personal and regional identity will depend as much on our bioregion’s natural history as on its human history.

I think this sentence exhibits part of the problem, by implying that human and natural history are separate things. It also I think eliminates the traditional ecological knowledge of Native Americans. In the Seattle area, there were people here shaping the land and working with its resources since glacier retreat. Pacific Northwest native peoples preserved habitat in the face of climate change (particularly the Garry Oak savannahs and other open plains), and worked with the resources at hand to support a growing population without running out of resources. Northwest Native culture was still growing when smallpox and Europeans arrived. It might have hit resource limits, such as what happened to the Cahokia mound builders on the Mississippi, or the limits that affected the meso-American cultures; we’ll never know.

Other than that, I do agree with the basic statement. We need to connect more closely with the nature immediately around us, however attenuated it may appear to be. And through that connection, reach back to people who knew better how to live with and manage the resources available to them.

But Seattle does connect well to its bioregion, we’re always bragging about closeness to the ocean, the mountains, the forests, etc. But this sometimes becomes just another path to consumption, with hiking poles and specialized clothing and expensive gear and then the big car to haul it in. Nature isn’t something we go visit; it intrudes on our every moment, awake and asleep; we owe the nature in our cities at least as much attention as the nature in our forests and meadows. That’s pretty much what Louv is saying here.

4. Be the leading pioneer city of nature-smart development and new agrarianism.

Don’t have as detailed an answer to this one. Seattle allows chickens, and there are lots of them around. People are finding out, however, the chickens stop laying after two years and still have several years left. The choice is either butcher them or keep them as expensive, not very cuddly pets.

But there are also lots of backyard farms and gardens. Ballard in particular has rain gardens, backyard habitats, pesticide-free yards, and more. In the rest of the city, there are community gardens (P-Patches), farmers markets every day of the week somewhere, and more. There’s even an urban food forest in the beginning stages, in Beacon Hill in Seattle.

Although the “locavore” movement is considered trendy and bourgeois, there are social justice aspects to farmers’ markets and p-patches as well. The best way we’ll survive some of the coming changes — the vanishing fresh water, the increasing temperature — is by decreasing the distance between the dirt and the consumer, and having as few intermediaries along the way as possible.

5. While government has a role to play, Houston could play a pivotal role in creating new, non-governmental ways of connecting people to nature.

There are many NGOs working to improve Seattle — it’s parks its waterways, its neighborhoods, and more. Seattle is one of the hotbeds of neighborhood activism, and has been for decades. The ones I work with most closely include Green Seattle Partnership, Groundswell NW, Seattle Parks Foundation, and EarthCorps. They all help with different aspects of restoration for North Beach Park.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.