Where is the nature with which people need to connect? New contributor Kate Tiedeman lays it out for us. --Mark
As the previous collaborators have noted, people’s willingness to conserve an area in linked to their experiences and exposure to that place. Children and adults who do not experience nature are less likely to feel protective of it. City dwellers often show no political interest in conservation measures- it’s hard to value something you haven’t experienced. Yet modern environmental discourse touts the benefits of city living as the most efficient way to accommodate a growing population. How do we then reconcile this dichotomy? What does it mean for the people living in urban deserts so far removed from the natural world?
City planners aim to increase localized population densities into manageable areas where services and resources can be provided efficiently. Environmentalists often espouse the same thing: people in densely populated areas have less impact on the environment, consume less, and limit the area of their negative impacts – including litter, the spread of invasive species, and light and noise pollution. In addition, those in cities are more likely to walk or ride bikes and less likely to own a car.
Some cities do an extraordinary job of incorporating nature through parks and open space. Cities like Boston boast the Emerald mile, while San Francisco and New York City have Golden Gate Park and Central Park, both created by the revered park designer, Frederick Law Olmstead.
However, this prevalence of green spaces is not found in many cities. In Australia, researchers found that green space is negatively correlated with high population of low-income residents – areas with high-income residents often had twice the amount of green space as areas with high proportions of low-income residents. A similar pattern is also found in the US, where low income residents are less likely to have access to recreational areas.
A number of studies are beginning to examine the environmental inequality experienced due to limited contact to nature. These studies found that limited experiences in nature are linked to serious physical and psychological health consequences, including increased stress, decreased ability to concentrate, and worse behavior. Effects were most severe in children. So what to do?
For many inner city residents living where environmentalists would want them, nature may remain a tantalizing four hour car ride away. Many green spaces, including national parks, remain largely inaccessible by public transportation. And as noted above, many urban areas are devoid of natural areas. But it may not be as simple as adding a bus line. Research indicates that daily exposure to green space is more helpful than a onetime exposure. A field trip may not generate the same environmental feelings as a park full of trees. Some organizations are working to add more green space and natural areas to cities – such as Urban Releaf in Oakland, which provides free trees to residents.
Without contact with green space, it’s difficult to imagine asking voters to conserve more land that they will not be able to experience. Thus a large base of potential environmentalists are cut off from a resource by inexperience. However, adding more green space could provide the most benefit to city dwellers. There is a tension within conservation in wanting to be efficient but also wanting to expose people to nature. The people most often cut off are low-income, adding to social injustice. Therefore, for both people and the environment’s sake, we have to find ways to incorporate nature into cities as population continues to increase and urban centers continue to expand.
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