For some city kids, their connection with the natural world is virtually non-existent.
This is a real problem, say researchers in a new perspective piece in the journal Science. The modern city is where a vibrant array of ideas, sights, sounds and smells intermingle to spawn creativity, expression and innovation. Modern society is tuned to the pulse of the city — but at what cost?
As put by author University of Washington (UW) researcher and article author Dr. Peter Kahn, a professor in the Department of Psychology and School of Environmental and Forest Sciences:
There’s an enormous amount of disease largely tied to our removal from the natural environment…
Kids in large cities are growing up having never seen the stars. Can you imagine that — having never in your life walked under the vastness of the star-lit sky, and there’s that feeling of awe, restoration and imaginative spark? As we build bigger cities, we’re not aware how much and how fast we’re undermining our connection to nature, and more wild nature — the wellspring of our existence.
Kahn, who directs the Human Interaction with Nature and Technological Systems Lab at the UW, and co-author Dr. Terry Hartig at Uppsala University in Sweden, point to studies that show the negative emotional and mental effects that living in the city can have on people. Many types of mental illnesses, such as mood disorders, are more common in urban areas, and while many factors share the blame, reduced access to nature is a contributing cause, Kahn said.
Another disheartening consequence of having little to no contact with the natural world is that it produces “environmental generational amnesia,” a term coined by Kahn that describes how each generation creates a new idea of what’s environmentally normal based on experiences in childhood.
If, for example, a child never plays in the dirt searching for bugs and worms, or never cranes her neck to take in the upward expanse of an old Douglas fir tree, then even as an adult, she may not know or care that forests are degraded or that certain species need protection.
In other words, these are not things she will ever miss, since she never experienced them.To take this idea a step further, the authors write:
This helps to explain inaction on environmental problems; people do not feel the urgency or magnitude of problems because the experiential baseline has shifted.
Packing people into cities, then, can have serious consequences for future generations, the authors argue. And with the current rate of city growth, it will be very difficult to incorporate nature into urban areas. Kahn points to future solutions:
I’m willing to say there’s a naturalness we can achieve in cities, but not at the scale we’re building or at the scale we’re headed with many cities…There’s nothing natural about a megacity.
Even so, there are steps that cities can take to introduce nature into the urban core, say the authors. These might include requiring buildings to have windows that open to allow in fresh air and natural light; incorporating more rooftop gardens and urban agriculture; and creating spaces within and around buildings to touch, see and smell native plants.
But it’s more than just planting a well-manicured tree here and there. Kahn argues that, in order to receive the physical and mental health benefits of nature, people must be able to interact with these elements using more of their senses.
For example, looking at an office plant on the windowsill is nice, but having a place to sit in the grass on a lunch break and perhaps even sink one’s feet into the soil are sensory experiences that can deepen a person’s engagement with nature.
The catch, however, is that these remedies would first require an appreciation for nature in urban centers. There needs to be an overall shift in the collective baseline toward better understanding and appreciation of the natural world.
Thoughtfully designed cities that incorporate nature would be able to offer both the stimulation and energy of an urban area and meaningful interaction with a psychologically restorative natural environment. As the authors conclude:
Thus, cities designed well, with nature in mind and at hand, can be understood as natural, supportive of both ecosystem integrity and public health.
Hartig, T., & Kahn, P. H. (2016). Living in cities, naturally. Science, 352(6288), 938–940. doi:10.1126/science.aaf3759
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