As we continue to build bigger, more expansive and industrial cities, and climate change poses a greater threat than ever, we must redefine what “nature” is. We cannot spend all our energy preserving magnificent natural landscapes to only forget about the nature at our door that is being destroyed. It is crucial to maintain and engage with if we want to fight climate change and increase engagement in that battle.
As we talked about last week, the concept of “nature” in the United States is centered around large, “pristine” landscapes, remote forests, striking vistas. And while it is important to continue to conserve these lands and protect their beauty, too much focus on these lands draws us away from an equally important part of the natural world that might seem less breathtaking or wild: the nature in and around cities. Nature in cities is fundamental to both a healthy experience of living in a city and the continual fight against climate change.
The lack of emphasis on nature in cities has significant consequences in terms of human health as well as animal health. As Robinson explains, “pollution is responsible for the deaths of 7 million people every year,” and there is substantial literature suggesting that increasing the number of trees and other greenery in cities “can provide localized but meaningful improvements in air quality.” Beyond respiratory illnesses, nature in cities such as mangrove forests planted on coasts or large open spaces helps mitigate climate disasters and improve the resiliency of a community. This is important as cities grow and the number of climate related disasters increases, requiring more thought to how to safely continue to live in the places we call home. Thinking about other species, on a basic level, cities contribute to significant habitat loss and working to reincorporate nature into urban landscapes and plan city development in tandem with the existing natural habitats, we can work to reduce habitat fragmentation and combat the reduction of threatened species. As Johan Robinson writes in an article for the nonprofit Mongabay, “With thoughtful planning, cities can connect habitats within and outside of city limits in ways that help protect populations of animals and plants that would otherwise be fragmented and vulnerable to extinction.”
Cities are only projected to continue growing in size, according to the United Nations, and with over 68 percent of the world’s population expected to live in urban areas in 2050, natural spaces will continue to be eaten up by development and protecting these landscapes is a cornerstone of fighting species loss, rising world temperatures, and climate change more broadly. The American perspective defines nature with such a specific image in mind, that the ecosystems, habitats, parks, animals, trees, endless aspects of the natural world that are part of cities get forgotten and willingly placed in a second-rate category. But the reality is, how much time does the average American spend in natural parks, staring at these remarkable, postcard quality vistas? It is significantly less time than is spent in an urban area surrounded by equally as important natural landscapes. If we embrace the parks, nature conservancies and rivers within the city limits, we can work to improve our quality of life but also develop sustainable cities for the future and support the growth of healthy, resilient communities. If we truly want to have the ability to live in cities and experience the world as we know it, we must start to view the small pockets of the natural world present in our everyday lives as valuable resources worth protecting, fighting for, and experiencing.