A New Definition of Nature: Now What?

Photo by H. Emre on Pexels.com

While creating a new definition of nature is a theoretical discussion, the implications are practical, real, and important for our everyday lives. Our relationship with nature is an undercurrent to many fundamental parts of our day and the world such as urban planning, our hobbies and weekend activities, our access to safe living spaces and clean air and water, and our happiness and wellbeing. Spending time in nature and rethinking the importance of more intentional natural spaces in cities will boost our quality of life, according to an article by the BBC. Not only does it make us happier, but more access to green spaces also improves air quality and other significant indicators of public health issues. Urban green space also reduces the heat island effect, a phenomenon in which the impervious surfaces (asphalt, concrete, buildings, rocks, etc.) in cities lead to an increase in temperature because they reflect the sunlight rather than absorb it. The heat island effect not only has adverse impacts on ecosystems as it modifies the weather patterns around cities, but it also negatively affects humans and is linked to an increase in heat-related illnesses and strokes. A new definition of nature, one that recognizes nature incorporated into urban and suburban environments as crucial to human and the planet’s wellbeing aids the development of nature and green space in urban settings, thus contributing to a greater city-dwelling experience.

Yet rethinking the meaning behind the word “nature” extends beyond these shorter-term human impacts. As we continue to fight climate change, we need to rethink the importance we assign to protecting the natural spaces we currently have and working to increase the amount of green area in the world. We cannot continue to disregard the negative impacts of the growth of built landscapes and suburbs without significant consequences – at some point, we will run out of space and natural resources. Putting all our conservation energy into spaces that are “remote” and “untouched” might maintain those landscapes, but it ignores the land that is being devoured in and around cities, and the strong implications of that landscape and ecosystem change.

Changing our perspective on the word “nature” means we are shifting our focus to balance stunning National Park landscapes with the “uglier” nature we interact with daily. It means we work to preserve and maintain clean rivers and water sources in cities or we work to increase nature preserves that help support local ecosystems and animal populations. It means we work to reduce pesticide and pollution to work against soil degradation and to preserve microbiomes. It means we are thinking about new housing development and recognize that we need to design houses that have an intentional impact. We must teach kids that being in nature can mean appreciating outdoor spaces inside cities, such as community gardens or rivers. Without fundamentally changing how we think about nature, we will be unable to find the creative solutions and motivation required to approach climate change constructively. Our current perspective on what is “worth protecting” and “worth saving” so heavily favors grand vistas that we will lose significant parts of our planet before we realize the destruction we are causing to the important ecosystems, riverways, and landscapes surrounding our cities and suburbs.

Next week we will focus on action steps and activities to start changing the dialogue around nature, but for this week, we challenge you to do one thing: notice the nature around you. Observe what exists and notice what does not exist. Are there parks you never thought about? Are there nature preserves within walking distance of your house? Are there no trees in an entire part of your city? Are there safe places to interact with the environment available for your kids? Is nature easy to access, or hard to access? The first step to change is awareness, and that starts with the drive to work or the Sunday afternoon trip to the grocery store.

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